Thu. Oct 29th, 2020

AFI FEST Review: ‘Whirlybird’ is a fascinating chronicle of the birth of breaking news

I live in Los Angeles, and I can tell you two things are ubiquitous:  helicopters and an insatiable appetite for live news. If you don’t live in Los Angeles, it’s hard to explain the curiously disturbing obsession Angelenos have with car chases in particular. No matter what time of day or night, if there is a car chase anywhere in the viewing area, almost anything will be pre-empted to cover it live. There are several Twitter feeds that do nothing but monitor police scanners and tweet out alerts as to when a chase might be imminent. It’s a cultural phenomenon here, a unique cross-section of car culture, a myriad labyrinth of freeways and a bustling metropolis with seemingly unending capacity for drama. This is Hollywood, after all.

In addition to car chases, Los Angeles often feels the center of the world when it comes to breaking news stories of the past forty years, be it the riots following the Rodney King verdict, OJ Simpson, fires, earthquakes and too many high-profile court cases to count. Whirlybird, a new documentary from director Matt Yoka, traces the history of Los Angeles news coverage–and the root of that obsession with car chases–through the eyes of legendary reporter Bob Tur, who worked as a stringer and helicopter pilot through the ‘80s and ‘90s in Los Angeles, covering some of the most famous events in the area’s history. Tur became a news item himself when he transitioned later in life to become Zoey, but it is the career and work of Bob that is the focus of this documentary, which is stunning, captivating, disturbing and almost poetic in its tribute to the city of Los Angeles, in all its beauty and tragedy.

The film is 90% archival footage that must have taken years to comb through, most of it shot by Tur himself. The footage shows an unvarnished and unedited look not only at Tur’s life and work, but of the news events he covered, both as a ground reporter literally chasing police cars and trolling scanners to source stories and as the preeminent helicopter reporter of the era. 

But what the film also shows is an abusive, obsessive and demanding taskmaster who controlled every aspect of his world, including his family. Whirlybird chronicles the start of Tur’s career, which happened to coincide with the beginning of his family, as his girlfriend-then-wife Marika was sucked in by the excitement of the news chase and became his partner, professionally and personally. Chasing and reporting the news became literally the family business, but family took a back seat to the business in every respect, as Bob knew no bounds of competitiveness, perfectionism, anger or abuse. 

Interviews with the whole family, including Marika and daughter Katy, who absorbed so much of the family addiction to news that she became a top news reporter herself and currently hosts her own show on MSNBC, are illuminating and reveal a curious family dynamic that is heartbreaking and insightful.

It’s clear that Bob’s obsessive focus and compulsion to make chasing news stories his 24/7 existence, to the detriment of every relationship in his life, was a symptom of the person trying to drown out the inner demons, from the abuse he endured at the hands of his father, to his own deep self-questioning. The film is a fascinating study—and a surprisingly honest one—in personality, abuse and self-loathing. But there are no excuses for the fact that Tur was, for the most part, an asshole to everyone in his life. Why people stuck around is not addressed here, but his lack of empathy and decency shines through. Which is why the through-line of Zoey’s reflection back at Bob’s life makes this movie so much more tragic. This is what happens when you try to drown out someone who is scratching and clawing to be heard. 

Whirlybird is both a stunning chronicle of a city and a personal examination of drive, determination, decay and destruction. I will never watch a car chase in the same way again. But I will still watch.

This review is from the 34th AFI FEST.

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