Aaron Buries the Lead in Broadcast News (1987)
Broadcast News is a 1987 romantic-comedy about a brilliant but slightly unstable news producer and the two men in her life that push and pull her in the most complicated ways. An award-winning movie, it was a box office success and a critical favorite.
Television news had made its way into the stories of many popular film productions, usually in serious dramas about significant moments in history. With Broadcast News, the story is less concerned with the newscasts itself and more so about the people who present it. While it is considered a comedy, there are many poignant moments that give these characters a real sense of place and investment, with the the leads especially well-cast. These are imperfect people in a job where perfection is expected, and each struggles to make their mark in a highly competitive field. But of course, there is a lot of humor, but nothing like the more recent news parody Anchorman with Will Ferrell. The laughs here are all sourced from the greatest comedy well of all: human nature.
We meet Jane Craig (Holly Hunter), a feisty network news television producer who is incredibly skilled at her job, but spends her break times crying into her hands, having daily emotional breakdowns to get through the rigorous lifestyle. She is attracted to Tom Grunick (William Hurt) the dashing, handsome, but less-than-knowledgable potential anchor who has won his place because of his presence rather than his talent. He too is drawn to the spunky Craig, finding her voice in his ear during on-air broadcasts something akin to a sexual encounter. Then there’s Aaron Altman (Albert Brooks), the talented but less than TV-ready reporter who keeps his real affections hidden as he tries to juggle a fast-pace, high-pressure career beside a woman he can never have but desperately wants.
Directed by James L. Brooks, the movie is a fascinating look behind the curtain so to speak of how a television news program is brought to air, but is a much more entertaining film about the characters who make it happen. All three leads were nominated for Academy Awards for their performances and Hunter especially is a dynamo, carrying the movie for most of its runtime, the wedge between the men that is a fiercely independent woman with her own agenda. The polar opposites of Grunick and Altman are well-played and authentic, making sympathy hard to know where to settle, a product of a sensational script (by director Brooks).
There are number of great moments that give the film its heart (and humor), with Albert Brooks easily getting most of the laughs. His character, Aaron, has dreamt of becoming a news anchor his whole life, and while he is a tremendously gifted journalist who has built acclaim for his in-depth exposés and critical reporting, he’s never earned a place behind the big desk. So when the opportunity suddenly arrives, he’s naturally a little nervous, reluctantly taking advice from Tom on how to sit right (it’s all about tucking the jacket under the butt). You can guess how it goes. Overcome with anxiety, he begins to sweat. A lot. Seriously. And live and on the air. It’s a sharp, well-written bit of comedy that takes this character to a place the audience isn’t expecting, and it works as a crippling moment for Aaron but a superbly conceived narrative device.
But the standout moment in Broadcast News is what follows Aaron’s descent. Back at his house, he is humiliated and depressed. Jane is there for support but expecting a date with Tom. She is attractively dressed and eager to give Tom a try. Aaron however, is not having it. Bitter at his failures and motivated by his disillusionment, he accuses Tom of actually being the devil, claiming that the under-lord wouldn’t show up in horns and and tail but would be instead a handsome figure earning a job with great influence who would, bit by bit, lower our standards. A newscaster.
It’s a sharp jab at Jane’s decision, and she attempts to storm away in anger, but comes back with her own accusations, claiming instead that Aaron is the real man downstairs. It falls on deaf ears though as Aaron erupts in a moment of high emotion and outright tells Jane that Tom is everything she had been fighting against, but more importantly, that . . . wait for it . . . he loves her. “How do you like that?” he says after the words fall from his mouth, “I buried the lead.”
The quip is an old news-writing quote that means secondary information is presented before revealing the true message, a technique often meant to be avoided in journalism, so as to get to the point right away, especially given the limited attention span of readers and viewers. Aaron uses the line ironically, stating a fact that he’s sure she already knows, and one that he’s probably figured should have been said long ago and more directly. What happens after, I’ll leave for you to discover, but the scene is a powerful emotional arc for both characters, and one that sees a man who has fallen from grace on national television decide he as nothing else left to lose. It’s a great moment. And it’s a great film.