The whispers in the morning
Of lovers sleeping tightFrom The Power of Love by Jennifer Rush
Since time immemorial, many have ruminated on what love is. Stevie Nicks doesn’t know what it is but agrees that it’s very powerful. Pat Benatar thinks its a battlefield. Todd Rundgren thinks that its the answer. The Beatles told us that love is all we needed. Matt Johnson of The The indicated that love is stronger than death. And Bryan Ferry informed us that it is the drug of his choice. Diverse opinions indeed, but all speaking to love’s power.
The 1980s seen an increase in mainstream romantic films, usually having a dominant male star cast alongside a lesser known female actor, little more than an eye-candy love interest (think Top Gun or Splash). The male gaze and the male outlook were prominent in these movies because of the dominance of male screenwriting and directing in Hollywood, something that is only starting to improve now. Some films from this time, many of which are still held in high acclaim, portray a creepy pursuit of women by men in the so-called ‘name of love’ (think Say Anything or Overboard). The independence of women is far from evident, and if it does raise itself in some rare examples (think Grease, Pretty Woman, Bird on a Wire or Dirty Dancing), it is contrived. Having said that, there are some gems out there. Yes, I speak of films that were still written and directed by men, but at least the female characters are more prominent and somewhat in control of their own destiny. I think of Moonstruck and When Harry Met Sally. But the best example I have chosen for discussion here is James L. Brooks’ Broadcast News from 1987, a film about three people working for a high-pressure TV news network and whose personal and professional lives intertwine with each other.
******The following discussion contains spoilers for the film******
With a basic ‘love triangle’ premise, Broadcast News may appear to be yawn-fare. But there is no doubt that despite its mainstream tendencies, it is compelling and smart. It has entertainment, romance and comedy, and it also has high-brow intellectual drama. The great thing about it for me is that its intellectual verve revolves around love, thus making it escapist and at times warm and fuzzy. But in no way is it contrived. The high-calibre performances and the realism that permeates the narrative keeps a straight-forward, happy-go-lucky conclusion at arms length. And I love that.
Holly Hunter and Albert Brooks, who play the talented news producer Jane Craig and reporter Aaron Altman respectively, are the engines that propel the story. But enter the handsome and less intelligent news presenter Tom Grunick, played by William Hurt, and all of a sudden a whole different dynamic goes to work. Jane is a driven woman in pursuit of truthful and ethical news reporting, but her obsession with work, and her obvious obstacles in being a woman in a high-status role, sees her personal life suffer. Aaron is an outspoken motor-mouth with an all-encompassing world-view, but he is sometimes unable to follow up his words with actions. Tom is a likable, receptible everyman with a tendency to do and say dumb things. This triumvirate of mixed characteristics working together is fascinating. Aaron and Jane are best friends. Aaron clearly has unrequited love for her, but Jane is attracted to Tom. Tom is attracted to Jane too but you get the sense that he just has the hots for anything that moves. Aaron indeed resents Tom but he assists Jane in moulding him into a better news presenter because, at the end of the day, this is what’s most important. Truth plays out as the film progresses and the love affair between Jane and Tom crumbles, with Aaron playing a vindictive role in its instigation. Each of the characters go their separate ways at the end, and all the love vibes that went before peter out. Many viewers would be left with a sense of longing here – wanting Jane to have hooked up with at least one of the men. But what is clear is that Jane/Aaron or Jane/Tom was just not meant to be, and I think the final scenes compound this. She is happier moving on from that period in her life. And to me that is satisfactory. But again, this comes back to the wonderful at-play viewer interaction that occurs throughout the film.
The great thing about Broadcast News is its sense of authenticity. Nowadays, a news network setting would likely be more controversial considering the out-of-control politicisation that occurs in that space. But whereas there is a left-wing slight to the characters of Jane and Aaron, I think the straight-laced Tom throws a relevant balance to proceedings. And the coming-together of Jane and Tom (opposites attracting) affirms this. The film was written, produced and directed by James L. Brooks, then a veteran writer of popular TV shows and who later helped Matt Groening bring The Simpsons to fruition. A staunch Democrat, Brooks actually found inspiration for his screenplay at the 1984 Republican National Convention where he interacted with news network journalists. He disliked their general disposition, and when he started writing Broadcast News, the characters of Tom, Jane and Aaron were all reflective of that. But he found that, as the story evolved, their characters naturally transitioned between likable and dislikable. Indeed, it helped that the whole film was captured in a faintly romantic comedy set-up. And so, you have this lack of contrivance that elevates it above so many other films from that genre.
I guess the reason I include Broadcast News in this series is that it speaks to love’s nuances. The power of love can sometimes be detrimental, it can sometimes be fatal. In this case, it can be altered before it is too late. I find that Jane reasons with herself that Tom is not ‘the one’. She could be wrong, but she makes a decision for herself and doesn’t look back. It is more problematic in Aaron’s case, because even at the end, we get the sense that he may still love Jane. However, when Aaron requited his love for her she quickly rebuffed him. And so the key is that the ‘power of love’ needs to be conclusive between both parties. Hearts indeed break, but love can always be rekindled in other avenues. It just takes time…and that time often needs to occur after the credits roll.