In the relatively small number of films which seriously tackle television as a social influence, two stand out: the powerful "Network" of 1976 and "Broadcast News" of 1987.
And the latter, airing at 8 tonight on ABC (Channel 13), is worth another look because the most acute insight of "Broadcast News" got lost in all the big-hit excitement. (The film was nominated for seven Oscars.)
Do you recall the James L. Brooks' movie? It was far less a rant than "Network" (by writer Paddy Chayefsky and director Sidney Lumet), but subtly caught the inner world of TV news better.
William Hurt plays a telegenic but not particularly mentally advantaged anchorman, Holly Hunter is the bright producer who recognizes but regrets his ascendancy, and Albert Brooks is a good reporter who feels overtaken by the incompetent "pretty boy."
Many viewers and critics concluded Hurt's Tom Grunick was genuinely dumb, and that his success therefore represented the worst tendency of TV news to emphasize image over substance.
But the movie's key message rests in understanding the opposite: Hurt's character is the smartest of them all, for only he intuitively understands that TV is nothing but image -- or at least, it must be image first before it can offer substance.
Grunick may not understand the news he reads, nor even really care about it. But he knows how to deliver it in a manner that transmits both understanding and caring through the eye of the camera.
Grunick's tips to Aaron (Brooks), before the reporter makes his disastrous debut as a weekend anchor, have nothing to do with news but everything to do with the puzzling power of the visual.
As Grunick fusses over the fit of Aaron's suit, and suggests that he tilt his head slightly and lean into the camera to convey trust, he shows his skill at making the medium work before it can deliver any message.
ALSO ON THE MOVIE MARQUEE:
* Will "The Terminator" man be able to say "I'll be back!" after this one? Arnold Schwarzenegger makes his debut behind the cameras as director of "Christmas in Connecticut," at 8 tonight on cable's TNT network (with a 10 p.m. repeat). The film is a remake of the schmaltzy 1945 classic (with Barbara Stanwyck), and stars Dyan Cannon, Kris Kristofferson and Tony Curtis.
* Two films with Baltimore angles can also be seen tonight on premium cable's The Movie Channel: "Blaze," with Lolita Davidovich as The Block's most famous stripper (Blaze Starr), is at 6. And "Avalon," Barry Levinson's ode to the immigrant experience as he observed it growing up in Charm City, follows at 8.