Ah yes, here it is, a nifty little thriller quietly playing in theaters right now loaded with the soul of a 1970’s expose film- right down to the rather glum ending- it reminds us of many films of that decade that would take a peek inside an industry and show us how things worked; to expose a wrong or how an industry worked, (The China Syndrome) and what it was hiding.
All the President’s Men was about the former, showing Woodward and Bernstein through diligence and skill and how the newspaper business worked to expose a corrupt administration and now, Nightcrawler is about the latter; how television news is the biggest bullshit sham industry since P.T. Barnum’s Circus and the secrets they hold. It’s a moody, scathing, damming indictment of the tactics used to procure news footage and how they present it to the public. Nothing new of course, but the attitude is straight to the juggler. It doesn’t insult our intelligence; it accepts the notion that we know this and is just spreading a truth.
The theme underscored is of course- national or local news, they are all full of shit and want to keep up the facade that they know more than Joe Public, which of course they don’t. They want the public to accept the fact that they don’t exploit anyone to get a story, that the stories come to them and they merely report- Bullshit! The days of Edward R. Murrow and even Woodward & Bernstein are over- there are no such thing as truth-seekers, gone are the days of Marvin Zigler and the true spirit of investigative reporting, (“Slime in the Ice Machine!”) And especially anchors being held in high regard such as John Cameron Swayze and Walter Cronkite- what remains today is hardly integrity, digs for truth, but pushing agendas, influence and coveting power.
Somewhere in the 1980’s news became another extension of entertainment when the seeds were planted and the notion of making money from the news became reality. Honest news has been in short supply for many decades now and its only getting worse. The news can’t just be reported these days, there has to be a gimmick, a tag line, a title, a victim, , an older man with plastic smile, and helmet hair; a villain and a hero- all of it flows out the mouth hole of a bimbo with a fake plastic smile, teased hair and goofy weatherman antics.
I can only speak from what I’ve witnessed of course and don’t have access to every local news station across the country, but where I live, there are three local stations and only one does instigative reporting of any kind and its done usually and only for sweep periods. The other two- never… one station recently aired a so-called human interest story of old people dancing- I’m not making this up. It was a Charles Kuralt wants-to-be who interviewed elderly people hoofing it on the dance floor. That’s it. It could have easily been a joke, but no, this reporter always does stories like this- useless fluff that doesn’t amount to anything; they aren’t insightful, (see Steve Hartman of CBS news for human interest stories done perfectly) funny, poignant or valuable; its phony, treacly forced junk. The worst part is this garbage aired during the prime time 6pm cast. It’s quite embarrassing and not real surprising that this reporter has been at the same station for fifteen years; unusual in an industry where reporters live as gypsies most of the time, but with a resume packed with vapid, stupid stories- no wonder…
The sister station lead their 6pm broadcast recently with a story about—-hold on, folks… wait for it…. POISON IVY! Again, true story and I nearly rolled off my couch laughing and watching as the reporter, who looked to be about 14, says her words through a fake smile about the evils of itching and how to spot poison ivy in the wild cutting to interviews with “experts” talking about itchy poison ivy and what do if you have a case of it- the suggested you go to the Doctor ASAP and don’t scratch it.
The morning chat shows are more of the same, regurgitation of last night’s headlines served with fake smiles and idiot anchors with the average age of 22, who do not know when to stop talking. Their opinions on anything outside the script are painfully dull and ignorant and their discussions about movies are like listening to two dumb 7y/o describes the virtues of eating boogers.
THIS is what the media, at least in my area, thinks of its audience- A pack of idiotic, baby-birds, mouths agape, waiting for the latest heaping helping of news gruel read to us by the constantly smiling Lensmeat; content quality= irrelevant.
I would assume this grabs the ratings as they keep doing it and perhaps I should be thankful, the alternative, as shown in Nightcrawler is far worse.
So what’s the point of this bromide? News is phony, the presentation of it is worse and the gathering of it is often of questionable tactics. Where else am I going to get another opportunity to complain about the local media without having restraining orders involved?
I graduated college with a BA in Mass Communications and worked at a local television station for five years. I grew to hate the field and the people; rife with too many idiots, a-holes and ignorant jerk-offs. I knew the history of broadcast television- from Edward R. Murrow, Ed Sullivan, Walter Cronkite, and Tom Snyder; on down to David Letterman and all the names in between and when others didn’t share my passion or knowledge, it enraged and disappointed me that none of them didn’t. It wasn’t just a calling, but briefly, my life and it offended me that others didn’t take the time to know and learn the industry’s greats and accomplishments; made perfect sense to me, we were sharing the same industry after all and for one brief shining moment I had planned to be on that list of greats.
Although I don’t regret one second, I quit five years later, I grew to hate it after three, but by year five I wanted out. Although I don’t regret one second of it, as I made some great friends, it was a hard lesson learned. My childhood ambitions were dashed and I was forced to wise up and lose a romantic notion that everything on television was presented with noble intentions and that the money was good- neither were true. Most importantly I learned news is as fake as its presenters or as real as them. If you have amoral Lensmeat foisting junk, that’s exactly what you get. If you have upstanding, solid reporters, you have a rare find.
And that’s where we find Lou Bloom, (Jake Gyllenhal), an oddball, who is stealing to pay the bills and doesn’t seem to fit in anywhere. He finds his niche and becomes good at recording news events; fires, murders, car crashes- and sales his footage to the local news station. Dead-last in the ratings, a desperate news producer, Nina Romina, played with steely reserve by Rene Russo. As the Bloom gets bigger and better at what he does, he becomes smarter and begins to show his true colors. He’s a business man first off and quickly learns how to make money from what started out as a hobby. Gyllenhal has never been a favorite of mine, always off putting and full of gimmicks, he never came across with authority or charisma – until now. He’s magnetic as Lou is not quite right, we wonder is he a sociopath or just a lonely entrepreneur- both as he literally kills his competition by sabotaging their news vehicles. Sociopaths are almost always over-played, actors go gimmicky and give those weird affectations or things that just aren’t true- Lou is the real deal, and he cares for only thing- to see his footage on the news. Gyllenhal keeps it close to the ground, nuanced and he makes Lou repulsive and commendable as it gave you a highly and continually conflicted rooting interest in a sociopathic character, by showing admirable traits that we could identify with. When he succeeded by utter determination or by intelligence, he was admirable, and when he succeeded by sociopathic tendencies, he was appalling, but where a lesser movie would have shown him switching between the two, everything he accomplished in this tale was skillful blending of the two, subtly and smoothly; no mustache twirling or exaggerated facial expressions. His defining moment is arriving on scene of a fatal car crash and moves the dead body to get the “perfect shot” or walking into a crime scene with bodies minutes dead looking for his next paycheck. It’s also quite a remarkable performance with plenty of stinging accusations of the real world news players.
Russo, who hasn’t been seen in anything good outside a comic book lately, is excellent. She sparks with Gyllenhal, she at first finds his character rather quaint in his ability to nab the best footage, but is soon both repelled/attracted to his sexual advances and his shark-like ambition. These two send the film to its soaring heights of dark philosophy and creepy kinship as they dicker and barter for the “right price.” She becomes seduced by his footage as her ratings go up; it makes no difference that there are shotgun victims, airplane and car crash victims being shown as entertainment. At one point she and Lou sound like movie executives talking about “great framing” of the shot or how the camera “flows.” Her News producer balks at this, but she says, “we can run it if we pixelate their faces,” the elephant in the room- the moral imperative jumps off the screen and into the audiences lap giving great tension in this scene and throughout the film. The moral dilemmas are addressed but it’s obvious from the giddy-up, these parasites are not interested.
Taking the needed pot-shots at scummy network executives is nothing new- the also brilliant, Network, (1976) from which Nightcrawler could have easily sprung from its genetic pool, touched on network news and its rapacious appetite for sleaze and exploitation was the way to ratings gold- it worked as satire and but a few years later became stone cold truth. Russo feels like she could have been the daughter of Dunaway’s one-track minded executive who is “on” all the time. The speech by William Holden as he is scolding his bosses for making the news manipulative and tacky while reminding them they used to be ok with and expected the news department to lose money as long as they reported the news accurately and straightforwardly.
Bill Paxton shows up as a rival to Lou who offers him a job, Lou says no and their competition is the films most interesting moments, especially what Lou does to corner the proverbial market on who gets the best footage. An actor who is always fun to see, and proves he can be a solid performer given the right material.
First time Director David Gilroy has nothing impressive or memorable on his resume as a writer, (Freejack- ugh!) but his talents definitely are here as Director. He has a smooth unassuming style and never gets in the way. He captures a sad, morbid mood of L.A. not seen since Collateral, which could easily be its seedy cousin- creates a strange, exciting look that almost makes what Lou is doing seem fun.
I had no vested interest in anything starring Jake Gyllenhal, but Nightcrawler is the perfect example of a movie taking you by total surprise. Smart, steady performances and a razor sharp script laced with wicked pronouncements and sobering revelations make this a keeper- eye and ears open during Oscar season!