Whirlybird is like a documentary version of Nightcrawler. It looks at a pivotal moment in news reporting, specifically the advent of helicopter use for live segments. At the center is Zoey Tur, a transgender woman who – under her previous name of Bob – revolutionized news in the age of 24-hour channels and increased “while it's happening” coverage. The film is also a study of a difficult personality, showing how the obsession with scoops led Tur to profound unhappiness. Director Matt Yoka keeps the pace appropriately zippy, as befitting the lifestyle its subject once lived.
Tur and ex-wife Marika Gerrard worked as a team, covering Los Angeles news under the aegis of their own freelance reporting business. The way they did their jobs changed dramatically after buying a helicopter. Suddenly, they could rush to the scene of a story in just a few minutes, allowing them to often capture events as they were still unfolding. Tur piloted, as Marika hung out the door with a camera. The duo filmed the very first police chase broadcast live, finding they were able to follow the culprit's speeding car. Later, they followed O.J. Simpson from the air as he fled cops in that white bronco.
Armed with such amazing footage, news channels were willing to pay them top dollar. Tur changed, however. The rush of being first on the scene became an addiction. Marika found herself on the receiving end of tantrums and verbal abuse. (The film's audio of such abuse could be triggering for some viewers.) Nothing she did was ever good enough for her demanding spouse. Other pitfalls came about, too. Tur occasionally crossed the line from reporting the news to being part of it, even testifying against the L.A. rioters who brutally beat truck driver Reginald Denny in the wake of the Rodney King incident. Although they were clearly just as much in the wrong as the cops who beat King, Whirlybird implies a level of racism on Tur's part, thanks to some unnecessarily harsh language used on camera and in the courtroom.
Whirlybird almost plays like an action movie. There are chases, shootings, riots, and beatings. It also plays like a domestic drama. Tur appears on-camera explaining her psychological state during her years in the sky. Removed from it all, she's able to look back in horror at her own behavior. Marika is here, too, detailing how she began to feel less like a spouse and more like a servant as time went on. Combining these qualities gives the movie a lot of significance. Through their story, we can see how the adrenaline rush of chasing news took a toll on them, almost as though the catastrophes they covered somehow infected their actual lives.
Whirlybird is an enlightening look at both the evolution of televised news and how professional ambition caused a previously-solid marriage to fail. As a sign of how deeply these people were invested in their occupation, one of their children ended up going into the same business. Katy Tur now hosts her own daily show on MSNBC. The draw is strong, and possibly hereditary.
out of four
Whirlybird is unrated, but contains adult language and graphic news footage. The running time is 1 hour and 43 minutes.