After hanging up her telephone, Jane Craig (Holly Hunter) unplugs her phone, checks her watch, and sits quietly in her hotel room for a moment. Jane then bursts into chesty, heaving sobs. Her phone conversation wasn’t distressing, she was just checking in with her colleague and close friend Aaron (Albert Brooks). Jane just needed to cry for a moment, then she plugs the phone back in. This is our first real introduction to Jane in the 1987 masterwork Broadcast News. Directed by James L. Brooks, Broadcast News chronicles the lives of Jane, Aaron, and Tom (William Hurt) revolving around their work at a television news station.
Jane is an up-and-coming producer and has a reputation for being a hard-ass about the integrity of television news, with Aaron as a reporter fighting alongside her. Tom, however, is a rising anchor, who cannot stop falling upwards despite feeling severely underqualified for his position. The dynamic between the three characters is crackling and almost traumatic. Jane and Tom have palpable, super-hot chemistry, despite being at intellectually opposite poles. Aaron is desperately in love with Jane, but it manifests itself mostly as him being an asshole to her and everyone else. It’s a love triangle played to the rafters, grounded in questions of journalistic principle and intense, consuming jealousy. Rife with lines that should sound deranged, and exquisite, fence-swinging character choices, Broadcast News is a workplace comedy that plays like a Michael Bay movie. It’s also one of the most carefully constructed, emotionally scabbing films out there.
Jane breaking down this early is integral to the film. It gives Hunter such an immediate moment to get her claws into our sympathies. The shot feels so private and personal, with her facing the camera straight-on. Hunter acts the breakdown with all the wound-up fury of a workaholic and the emotional stupidity of a child. Throughout the film, you can see the emotion bubble up inside of her to the point where she can’t do anything else but expel it, with all the drama she claims she wants to avoid. She is hyper-intellectual at work, believing that news should be information only, and touchy-feely spectacle never. Jane thinks she can compartmentalize her emotional needs like she does everything else in her life, she assumes if she blocks off cry-time then she doesn’t need to feel for the rest of the day. So when she meets Tom and is hit by a wave of emotional and sexual desire, she literally doesn’t know what to do.
The crying introduction further breaks down potentially frustrating tropes that “career women” characters often fall into. Jane immediately inhabits capability and professional talent, but these emotional expulsions give background to her character. She is certainly grating at times, and she is aggressively self-assured, but she never becomes the workplace harpy dealing exclusively in internalized misogyny. Her self-assuredness is backed up by her hard work and striving proficiency, while her private emotional baggage supplies context. These crying moments also highlight her process-based brain, she’s methodical in the way she unplugs her phone and checks her watch. These scenes don’t feel like an aberration because her core traits don’t change.
About halfway through the film, the crying spells stop. As Jane and Tom become closer and start dancing around the possibility of dating, or fucking, or something, she becomes tapped into her emotional reserve. The compartmentalization begins to break down. Tom’s lack of intellectual appeal to her – including their absolute disagreement about journalistic integrity – situates her in an unknown, affective territory. She no longer needs to cathartically purge, because she lets emotion permeate her life. This is not to say that Tom enters her life and “fixes” her, but that the characters slightly change each other’s perspective. She inflicts a lot of fury onto Tom over his lack of qualification, and in turn, he learns to acknowledge his own failings and take greater accountability.
When Tom decides to co-produce his own story, without help from Jane, he chooses to focus on the idea of date-rape, a new term in the 1980s. Jane is already highly skeptical, worried that the story could become sensationalized and therefore not newsworthy. Tom continues anyway, and during a highly emotional interview with a victim, he includes an insert shot of himself crying in the final news broadcast. This choice gets mixed reviews in the office, Aaron detests the choice, but others appreciate Tom’s obvious emotional investment in the story. Jane simply claims that she was moved by the shot, but it would not have been her choice. She isn’t lying to spare Tom’s feelings; this moment is a genuine change in perspective for her. As a person who knows the power of tears, she can connect to Tom in an emotional register, even eventually admitting that she loves him.
What ruins this entire situation is when Jane finds out Tom faked his tears. He only had one camera at the shoot, meaning he had to film the insert shot after the interview had finished. Tom’s tears-on-cue is a lunge over the line for Jane, it infuriates her and goes against everything she’s ever stood for as a journalist. This is the final conflict the two have, punctuated by a gutting fight at the airport.
Tears on cue introduce us to Jane and also bring about the end of her relationship with Tom. The moving boundaries of emotion from private to public life are difficult for these characters to handle, and the constant debates over emotion vs principle seem to exhaust each one of them. For Jane, emotion had a time and a place, and now it bleeds out around the edges. Tom leads with his feelings, and their chemistry created constant conflict between warring ideals and irrational attraction. Broadcast News doesn’t leave us with a fully formed thought, just a resort back to some status quo that might be for the better or for the worse. All the fury and humor and knuckle-clenching the film whips up just sort of stops. It’s almost like James L. Brooks decided to plug the phone back in.