There’s a fundamental difference between the presentation of the national news on TV and the local. It’s not that one covers political and international occurrences while the other centers on what happened around the corner, it’s both content and tone.
First, local news is not the nearby equivalent of the national. National might cover politics in detail. Generally, local news barely mentions local politics and lawful bills passed unless there’s a mouth-watering scandal attached. National leads its broadcast with whatever is considered the most important story of the moment, often whether there’s video or not. With local, according to Bill Paxton’s independent video cameraman Joe Loder in the new drama Nightcrawler, “If it bleeds, it leads.”
Before anyone gets upset and jumps to the defense of local broadcasters, bear in mind that Nightcrawler takes place in the one city where the ability for local television to cover crime, criminal activity, not to mention car wrecks, stabbings, and rapes is considerably more opportunistic than say, Raleigh, North Carolina. To the rest of the country, Los Angeles at night seems rife with something dramatic that can always open the late-night broadcast. When news director Nina (Rene Russo) of the lowest rated, late-night local news program in L.A. explains to new guy Lou Bloom (Jake Gyllenhaal) what she’s looking for in a video recording, she says, “Think of news as a screaming woman running down the road with her throat cut.” That’s a ratings grabber for sure and goes a long way to illustrating why local TV isn’t always the reliable source of important local information even though it promotes itself as being one. Like an accident seen by rubberneckers at the side of the interstate, Nina states, “I want what people can’t turn away from.”
With it’s R rated story content of rape, abuse, or murder presented magazine-style, complete with close-ups of twisted car metal and edited comments from passers-by who have nothing to do with the story other than they’re willing to give an opinion to the camera, things have arguably developed into what Walter Cronkite once vocally feared; entertainment disguised as news.
Gyllenhaal’s Lou Bloom is as slick as the grease that combs back his hair. When we first meet him he’s selling stolen copper to a manager on a building site. When Bloom promotes himself as a quick learner in search of full time employment, the manager tells him, “I’m not hiring a thief.”
One thing is obvious about Bloom. He’s nuts and definitely a sociopath. There’s not a lot we learn of his background or what it is that makes him who he is, but Bloom, who admits he’s never had much of a formal education, is clear about his talents. “You can find anything if you look hard enough,” he states, and buys a video camera and a police scanner and does what he’s seen others do – he chases ambulances and records the aftermath of a car wreck, a crime or even a murder scene, then sells the rough footage to Rene Russo’s late night TV news program.
As time continues and ratings rise, Bloom becomes adept with his newly chosen career as an independent video recorder of L.A.’s underbelly, filming news we don’t always need to know but what we’ve become conditioned to accept. With the aid of a hired assistant, Bloom is continually trying to beat his opponents by getting to the scene first and scooping the competition. When a close-up is no longer good enough, Bloom’s not above either dragging a bloodied body closer to the vehicle for the convenience of a tight shot or even manufacturing a crime in order to film the police gunfire as it unfolds.
Nightcrawler doesn’t exactly lift the lid on local TV news or even tell us things that we don’t already know, yet it does bring us closer to the types and attitudes of those who run the news and goes a long way to showing how fear for ratings is sold. Russo’s news director may go to the extreme in order to make her program rise head and shoulders above the others in that late night slot, and her attitude along with Bloom’s behavior might seem abhorrent, but there’s certainly truth behind the extremities, made all the more effective by convincing performances from all principle leads. In many ways, calling the film Nightcrawler and releasing it in and around Halloween is not altogether inappropriate; what the film is portraying is horrorific.
If you travel around the country and watch local television, you’ll see many of those same interchangeable catch phrases attached to the broadcast, as in Telling It Like It Is or News You Need To Know, and they’re fine and make sense in terms of TV marketing and promotions, but there’s a more disturbing trend developing in some markets that uses the more insidious slogan Keeping You Safe. If that’s not a blatant case of peddling the notion of fear, what is? And in case you’re thinking, well, yeah, I get it, but Nightcrawler is still just a film and people don’t really act like that, consider this: More than twenty-five years ago while attending the house-party of a local TV news anchor, a cameraman I knew turned up late. He explained his tardiness was due to his videoing of a car wreck for the late evening edition and he was beaming because he’d ‘got the shot.’ When asked what he meant, he actually said, “If it bleeds, it leads.”
MPAA Rating: R Length: 117 Minutes Overall Rating: 8 (out of 10)