July 16, 2012

THE SKED’S PILOT + 3 REVIEW: “The Newsroom”… and “Broadcast News”


HBO has been airing a spiffy HD edition of James L. Brooks’ 1987 BROADCAST NEWS  in its recent rotation (it’s next scheduled for July 20 and 24), and that makes sense, since the Brooks film is one of the acknowledged inspirations for HBO’s current Aaron Sorkin series THE NEWSROOM.  I’m not sure how much of a favor it is to Sorkin, though.

Broadcast News is 25 years old and was only a moderate success when it first opened, so it’s probably not safe to assume general familiarity with it.  The movie is set in the Washington news bureau of a fictional broadcast network, and it’s important to note that while CNN existed in 1987–the network started in 1980–at the time Broadcast News was made, the concept of cable news networks was still a very fringe idea, and for the vast majority of Americans, the central news event of the day was the nightly broadcast network news.  The film’s story is a romantic-comedy-drama triangle, and concerns 3 protagonists.  Jane Craig (Holly Hunter), a rising producer in the bureau, is profoundly committed (she would resist the word “obsessively”) to the sanctity and importance of honest, fair and substantial news reporting; her personal life is also a mess.  Jane’s kindred spirit, Aaron Altman (Albert Brooks), is an on-air reporter also devoted to the ideals of the news; he’s in love with Jane, but while she’s his best friend, she just doesn’t feel that way about him.  And the catalyst of the story is Tom Grunick (William Hurt), a newly arrived reporter who’s superb at all the superficial, performance tasks of being an anchorman, but has little knowledge about or interest in the news itself; Jane is crazy about him, and hates herself for it, since as Aaron tells her, “Tom–while a very nice guy–may be the devil.”

Does any of this sound familiar?  Watching Broadcast News for the first time in years, it’s hard not to be struck by the fact that it’s not just the template for The Newsroom, but to one extent or another to every TV show Aaron Sorkin has done, from Sports Night to Studio 60 to even The West Wing.  I’m not saying this to suggest any plagiarizing or lack of originality on Sorkin’s part, just to note that this film is clearly one of his formative influences.

It’s somewhat unfair to compare any writer to the James L. Brooks of Broadcast News, a film that, while flawed (it has a notoriously unsatisfying non-ending, and Brooks cheats as a director by having the obviously intelligent Hurt play someone who’s not meant to be very bright), has one of those classic, infinitely quotable screenplays that will live as long as people recognize brilliant dialogue.  Apart from amazingly capturing the moment in time when the entire conception of “news” changed (and not in a satiric way, as in Paddy Chayefsky’s Network), the characters of Jane and Aaron are as complicated, lovable and infuriating as any on film–late in the picture, Hunter and Brooks have a marathon scene that’s like a master class in scene construction and performance.  The Academy voters of 1987 will just have to live with the fact that they gave the Oscar for Best Original Screenplay that year to the charming, but incredibly inferior Moonstruck (not to mention passing over Holly Hunter’s spectacular, indelible performance for Cher’s).  But Aaron Sorkin has never been one to steer away from easily demeaning comparisons, so let’s do it anyway.

The difference between The Newsroom and Broadcast News can really be summed up in a single passage of dialogue from Brooks’ film, a couple of lines that encapsulate the whole movie and its greatness.  The head of the network’s News division, pissed off at Jane because she’s objecting to his giving Tom a prime slot rather than Aaron, says to her with exasperation, “It must be wonderful to always believe you know better, to always think you’re the smartest person in the room.”  And Jane, with genuine pain, responds, “No, it’s awful.”  She’s not kidding, and neither is Brooks–Broadcast News is about being so helplessly committed to an ideal that you’re willing to rip yourself apart for it (eventually, Jane doesn’t go away with Tom even though she may love him, because he doesn’t live up to her principles about the news), and how that may be the right thing to do, but it’s not fun for anyone.

Sorkin doesn’t seem to have those doubts, and that (finally, I know) brings us to Episode 4 of The Newsroom.  The episode, written by Sorkin and directed by Alan Poul, was probably the most enjoyable of the series so far, if also the silliest, because it mostly avoided the speechifying that usually slows things down.  Instead, this time we were concerned with the love lives of our cast, which in this show means what’s going on with Will and Mackenzie on the one hand, and Jim and Maggie on the other.  The latter plot was a typical rom-com story where Maggie’s boyfriend Don insisted on fixing Jim up with Maggie’s hot roommate who Maggie thinks isn’t smart enough for him (Don wants Jim fixed up because he knows Jim is really crazy about Maggie, and Maggie might have feelings for Jim too), and Maggie doesn’t really want Jim to go out with the roommate but can’t say so, so they do, and they sleep together, and Maggie finds out and can’t admit that she’s jealous, and I’m done writing about this.

The Will plot, though, was worth a look for what it reveals about Newsroom in general.  The idea was that Will is still trying to make Mackenzie jealous, especially now that she has a seemingly serious boyfriend (Jon Tenney, taking time off from being Kyra Sedgwick’s husband on The Closer), so Will is making a show of dating like mad.  On New Year’s Eve, when for some reason the entire staff can’t find a better place to be than in the office, Will approaches a woman (Hope Davis) who turns out to write a magazine gossip column, where she’s planning to write a “takedown” piece on some fictional reality television star.  Will is outraged by this–that someone would deliberately set out to write negative things about celebrities in order to sell magazines–and as part of his “battle for civility,” he calls her on it, refusing to kiss her at midnight and prompting her to toss a drink in his face.  This leads to a succession of disastrous dates:  on one, he empties a gun he finds in the woman’s purse and, when she tries to demonstrate how she’d use the (empty) gun to protect herself, he disarms her and points the gun on her instead; another, with a different woman who also cares about reality television and the peccadilloes of celebrities, ends when he tells her how unseemly he finds that, and she also tosses a drink in her face.  (He’s just lucky Angelica Huston wasn’t around.)

The point of recounting all this is that Will would never even consider becoming involved with someone who didn’t share his intellect or principles.  There’s no visible ambivalence in him when it comes to his own superiority–he doesn’t think it’s awful at all to believe he’s the smartest one in the room.  As the episode continues, he gets into trouble because his exploits go public (in an idiotic plot twist, it turns out Jane Fonda, the network’s owner, is planting the stories in a magazine she also owns in order to create a rationale for firing him–because even though she’s a billionaire who hates his show, which has declined in the ratings, she can’t just fire him), but other than that embarrassment, he continues to think that his behavior,including his superciliousness, intellectual snobbery and just plain rudeness (did someone say “civility”?), are absolutely justified–and Sorkin certainly seems to agree with him.  The Newsroom is about the joy of always believing you’re the smartest one in the room, except for having to deal with the consequences caused by those less smart than you are.  The show is as smug as Will is, and even if you agree with its politics and its principles, that gets awfully tiresome.

A couple of other notes on the episode.  Although its last 10 minutes were by far the best, because Sorkin can always thrill us by having his team unite to deal with a crisis (even Don gets to be a good guy this time), the sequence was also an example of the way Sorkin uses the structure of the show to give his characters easy wins.  The crisis this time was the shooting of Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords in early 2011.  In the episode, as is factually accurate, CNN, MSNBC and FOX News all relied on a premature story at NPR, and they announced that Giffords was dead when of course she wasn’t.  In the show, Will, Don, Mackenzie, Jim and Maggie fight Reese (remember him, Jane Fonda’s son and the show’s designated straw man?) and refuse to announce Giffords’ death even though all the other networks have done so, and it proves what a superior news organization they are.  But they’re right because Sorkin knows Giffords lived.  Constructing a plot to take credit for that is like one of those time-travel stories where someone goes to the past and knows to buy Apple stock when it’s first issued–it’s not because he’s actually a genius at picking stocks.

And someone, please:  what the hell was going on with that Bigfoot story?  It was fine for a gag at the New Year’s Party, but to have it run through the entire episode, refusing to go away?  And we’re not supposed to think less of Neal for believing this?  And we’re also supposed to believe that the entire staff came in on a Saturday just to hear Neal’s pitch on a Bigfoot story?  Wasn’t there an easier way to justify all of them being in the office in time for the Giffords shooting?

It may be time to watch Broadcast News again…



About the Author

Mitch Salem
MITCH SALEM has worked on the business side of the entertainment industry for 20 years, as a senior business affairs executive and attorney for such companies as NBC, ABC, USA, Syfy, Bravo, and BermanBraun Productions, and before that, at the NY law firm of Weil, Gotshal & Manges. During all that, he has more or less constantly been going to the movies and watching TV, and writing about both since the 1980s. His film reviews also currently appear on and In addition, he is co-writer of an episode of the television series "Felicity."