Sundance 2020: Whirlybird

Editor’s not: For the purposes of this review, and through the wishes of the filmmaker and subjects, events that occurred under the auspices of news coverage, or in the chopper, will have Bob’s name attached, while present-day events will utilize Zoey. This will be especially true of direct quotes. 

Marika and Bob Tur’s relationship formed through trauma and tragedy. Not of their own, at least with regards to Marika, but of others. For over 20 years, they patrolled the skies as Los Angeles-based helicopter reporters. When a fire; high-speed chase; or murder occurred, they covered it. From the L.A. riots after the Rodney King verdict to the O.J. Simpson pursuit, their tight-knit relationship featured both highs and lows and toxic rage. In his debut feature, Matt Yoka’s Whirlybird thoughtfully documents world changing events, the couple’s marriage, and gender dysphoria through the couple’s archival footage and present-day interviews.

In some instances, Whirlybird is a love story and a recording of addiction. Marika and Bob initially bond over their respective interest in current events. Marika is reserved and initially game for Bob’s enthusiasm and drive. As stringers or freelancers, they’re ambulance chasers. To be paid, they need the best footage on the biggest stories first. And with each instance of breaking news, as the narratives grow, they’re overcome by a high. In fact, when Marika describes filming some of the many stories they covered, her face broadens in a fever pitch. Even today, both Marika and Zoey are overjoyed about the work they accomplished, and we’re indoctrinated in their mirthful reactions through Ty Segall’s exuberantly percussive score.                

Nevertheless, at points, Whirlybird is an indictment on the advent of 24/7 and cable news. Marika and Bob arrive on the scene at the rise and height of the phenomenon, and are often desensitized by the events happening below and in front of them. They skirt the line between solid reporting and exploitation, empathy and callousness, safety and self-destruction—all pursued in the name of fame, ratings, and money. 

Their relationship with each other, and the stories they’re covering nearly mirror Marcia Jeffries (Patricia Neal) and Lonesome Rhodes (Andy Griffith) in Elia Kazan’s A Face in the Crowd (1957). They—especially Bob—like Marcia and Lonesome, come to look upon the people below as currency and monsters. During one instance, after Zoey and Marika have reported on the attack on Reginald Denny during the Los Angeles riots—when a truck driver was pulled from his vehicle and beaten to form a bloody pool—when referring to the Black assailants Bob remarks, “These people are not people.” Moreover, their marriage like A Face in the Crowd disintegrates, and the pieces of their former glee are whisked away under the pressure of the chopper’s rotors. 

Bob performs abusive acts: verbal and physical. Zoey is hidden behind the face and body of a misbegotten identity and the camera lens to her children: Jamie and Katy. It’d be easy to dismiss Zoey’s present-day explanations for Bob’s behavior as sanctimonious Freudian theory or scapegoating—an abusive father that didn’t love Bob enough mixed with years of repression making for a fraught cocktail. And it would be right to pause at the idea of gender dysphoria immediately leading to toxic and abusive behavior.   
Throughout, Marika radiates sensitivity and understanding; she vocalizes not only the traumatic spikes in her marriage but also Bob’s behavior. And through Yoka’s detailed narrative—and by editor Brian Palmer and the filmmaker combing through hours upon hours of the couple’s taped broadcasts—we come to empathize with both. Whirlybird is a brutal and compelling portrait with regards to ambition and scope, and empathy.

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