The Washington Post recently had an article about DC in the movies, highlighting director James L. Brooks for really getting Washington. From All the President’s Men to his latest, How Do You Know?, he displays an excellent understanding of the culture of the city.
We’re not like Chicago or LA or New York. The people here are different, with their own unique challenges and motivations. New Yorkers may think that, just like there are no good bagels in DC, there’s no real “there” in Washington. It’s a transient city, with no realness about it. (Or, as a friend of mine from NYC once said, there’s no “bounty” to it.)
There’s a grain of truth to that assessment – it is a transient city, drawing in and expelling different political classes with each election. But most DC residents don’t work on Capitol Hill. They somehow manage to function without being part of the political class.
Members of the Tea Party view Washington as Babylon, center of sin and wickedness, where overpaid bureaucrats extract the wealth of the nation. I am not one to say that government is great. In fact, having worked in government myself, I think that government tries to do way too much. However, most feds I’ve known have a strong sense of service and in no way match up to the stereotype of government officials.
The rare movie that really understands the people of Washington is James L. Brooks’ Broadcast News. In this workplace drama, Holly Hunter plays Jane Craig, a TV news producer. She’s driven, a workaholic with an uncompromising faith in the honest tenets of journalism. Albert Brooks is Aaron Altman, her friend and an on-air correspondent. He’s secretly in love with her.
Into this world comes William Hurt. He’s a telegenic, on-the-rise reporter. With his slick manner and phony emotions, he represents everything that Jane hates and fears about the future of the news. It’s style over substance and, despite her beliefs, she finds herself falling for him.
Despite being made more than twenty years ago, there’s so much that this film gets right about Washingtonians:
- The city is filled with people who want to change the world. Jane has a religious belief in the power of news. An early scene shows Jane giving a presentation to an audience of news reporters, trying to explain an important policy change that all the news broadcasts missed. But the journalists are bored by this, which Jane finds intolerable.
- We’re fast-talking know-it-alls. Despite being from the South, Jane has the “rapid patter of the overeducated” (that’s how I described Washingtonspeak in my book). A running joke in the movie is Jane telling taxi drivers which routes to take, for she knows better than they do. Aaron is even worse – he’s shown in a flashback delivering a valedictory address where he insults the quality of the education that he’s received.
- Work and life are intermingled. Broadcast News presents work as family. For all the characters, there’s no real life outside of the office, where they find love and companionship. And when there’s a layoff (because the network couldn’t program Wednesday nights), it’s brutal.
These themes are expressed in this funny exchange:
PAUL It must be nice to always believe you know better. To think you're always the smartest person in the room. JANE (from her depths) No, it's awful. Oh my, it's awful.
I remember seeing the movie not too long after it came out. I hated it. The characters are really unlikeable, and redeemed only by the performances of Holly Hunter, Albert Brooks and William Hurt. Would you like to be friends with a know-it-all like Jane? Do you want to have no work/life separation? Is your job a job or a holy mission?
The movie was too real for me – I know ambitious folks just like this. I’ve worked in places where a sense of mission was used as an excuse to mistreat employees. And I’ve seen what happens when the pursuit of fulfillment in work goes wrong.
Over the years, my attitude toward Broadcast News has mellowed. Certain things are still grating. Aaron in the movie is just a needy jerk. His insecurities are supposed to be charming but that Woody Allen schtick has aged badly.
And the ending is tacked-on. Things come to a climax where everything gets resolved, tragically. Jane is alone in a cab.
And then there is another ending, seven years later. A happier one. Sometime in those seven years, magically, everyone found a way to change and be happy.
Beware movies where a title card comes up reading, “Years Later.” That’s when the screenwriter has written themselves into a box and needs to get out of it. Surely, we can’t leave Jane alone and unhappy – this is a comedy.
Despite its flaws, Broadcast News is the best way to experience a little of what it’s like to actually live in DC. Maybe you won’t become a career-driven workaholic, but you’ll certainly be surrounded by them. And you’ll have to cope with crusaders, confident that they know best, whether it’s recycling, caroling on the Metro or how to mix a cocktail. People here also talk way too fast and have their own ideas about how to get from Dulles to Dupont.
Like the city itself, I have a love/hate relationship with this movie. Broadcast News gets too much right – and just a little wrong – to be comfortable viewing for me. For those outside of DC, it’s probably the best way to experience life in Washington, getting just a taste of life in the city from the comfort of your living room.