Sundance 2020: Whirlybird, by David Bax
Of all the fascinating ground Matt Yoka’s Whirlybird covers, it is perhaps most crucially a transgender story. Even when it’s not directly about that, the fact of it is there every time one of the interviewees refers to the movie’s subject, Zoey Tur, as “Bob” or “he.” Zoey, meanwhile, is not exactly up-to-date herself; her insistence that gender confirmation surgery should only be undertaken as a “last resort” doesn’t seem likely to be agreed with by the trans community. All the misgendering, though, ultimately helps to illustrate one of Whirlybird‘s more powerful suggestions. When we see a not yet out Tur screaming at people, calling them “assholes” and “imbeciles” (even though they’re cops and she’s probably right) or worse, we’re seeing something we may have chalked up to toxic masculinity but was actually more likely to be fallout from a mix of gender dysphoria and an abused childhood. Whirlybird lets us empathize with someone’s who’s suffering without letting her off the hook for the pain she’s caused others.
It’s also, by the way, just one hell of a story. Tur and her wife, Marika, built a successful business as video news stringers starting in the late 1970s. For a decade, they grew their operation until Tur decided the next move was the buy a helicopter and get to the scenes of fires and grisly plane crashes even earlier. Yoka includes interviews with Tur, Marika, their children and their employees (all with standard definition-looking chyrons that evoke the era of the subjects’ heyday while also, thankfully, getting the names and pronouns right).
Stringers like these folks were the inspiration for Dan Gilroy’s Nightcrawler. But Tur at times resembles Jake Gyllenhaal’s sociopathic opportunist in more specific ways as well, pursuing the next bit of gory spectacle with reckless abandon. Even the simple phrase “I knew I needed a helicopter” embodies the exact kind of insatiable American ambition Gilroy was satirizing.
As intriguing a story as Whirlybird is, it wouldn’t be nearly so compelling as cinema were it not for the treasure trove of shocking, well-composed footage (most of it shot by Marika). From the familiar, even iconic images like Reginald Denny being beaten in the street or O.J. Simpson in the back of a white Bronco (the Turs were the first of many helicopters on that scene) to the darkly beautiful ones like a dead horse on a beach under a sunset made red and gorgeous by wildfire smoke, there’s so much of it that even some of the most spectacular, like a van flipping over in the middle of a police chase, is only glimpsed for a second. A shot of Marika in her archive shows plastic shelves sagging under the weight of the many, many tapes.
These images not only define an era of Los Angeles, they helped to shape it. Despite Tur’s insistence that “L.A. really is heaven,” her coverage tipped the national perception of the city into that of a violent hellhole. Tur’s ability to transmit live images of crime and destruction also opened a direct valve to the city’s residents, one which the powers that be were only too eager to fill up with racist public policy. Humanity is predisposed to bloodlust but we don’t always actually want to see the things we think we do. In Whirlybird, images of human suffering poison a whole city while the person producing them suffers and poisons in her own way.