Today’s post kicks off a special month of Monday Movies: November of News! Each Monday, I plan to showcase a movie about or involving the news business and why I think it’s interesting or important. November is, not coincidentally, a “Sweeps” month. People sometimes use the phrase “Sweeps Week” and I can’t help but wish it was only a week long. It’s a month, or rather, 28 days. Then the next day is Thanksgiving and then the next thing you know it’s a new year and February is a new Sweeps month and… repeat.
So without further ado, here’s my first review of November of News: “Nightcrawler”
Every once in a while a movie comes along that so closely resembles aspects of my life that it’s impossible to view it for what it is. “Nightcrawler” is one of those movies.
It’s fair to say that there are parts of this film I live everyday. Like, they filmed it in my newsroom, you can see my desk in the movie, and there’s a guy who plays an “Assignment Editor” on the Morning News. That’s my life — five days a week!
You’ll notice that the station is KWLA. That’s not really a stretch from KTLA, where I work. They filmed inside the station, and they filmed outside of the station. I was under the impression that they had filmed a few scenes there — but there’s actually a lot of it (be sure to see the slideshow below… I recreated some of the scenes!) Some of my coworkers are even in the film. So needless to say, I got a little lost in the details.
But I certainly got the essence of the movie. It’s about a “stringer” — a private videographer who routinely sells breaking news footage to television stations — who ends up getting really into his job. That stringer is Louis Bloom, played by Jake Gyllenhaal in perhaps the best performance of his career so far. He’s creepy, calculated, and opportunistic. It’s unfair to say that this line of work suits his personality; he seems able to do almost anything… he’s certainly determined, thanks in part to sociopathic tendencies.
The yin to Louis’ yang is the “News Director” of the Morning News, Nina Romina, played by the always-excellent Rene Russo. She and her newscast are bloodthirsty, and Louis manages to whip up plenty of supply for that demand. And as you might imagine, things go awry and people get hurt. It’s hard to have much sympathy for those involved, especially Bloom. It’s a dark movie and it’s worth seeing, if for no other reason because of Gyllenhaal’s performance and because it puts a spotlight on an interesting facet of our culture.
About that facet: Stringers. I’m especially interested because they’re an important part of my job. I’ve worked with various stringers in two different media markets (Los Angeles and Portland) and they essentially operate the same way: They hear about breaking news in a variety of ways, and they get to it and shoot video of it. Then television stations buy it and report on the story. And sometimes these stories end up being really important, and they create meaningful change in the community. But if nothing else, it’s compelling video, and people watch that video.
The movie heavily relies on two assumptions: That stringers are kind of creepy and that the news is kind of creepy… Stringers are passionate about shooting these sometimes disturbing scenes, and the news can’t get enough of it. There’s certainly a Hollywood sheen over the whole thing that can’t be ignored. Like Aaron Sorkin’s The Newsroom, liberties are taken, and it redefines in our culture how journalists are expected to behave. How much you enjoy this movie will depend on how much you buy into these assumptions and then accept their consequences.
Throughout 15 years of working in news, I’ve found it to be a mostly respectful and thoughtful profession. There are frequent and thorough editorial discussions about what should be aired and how much of it we’re willing to show you. It’s a moving target, and each community has different standards. We don’t always get it right, but it’s rarely done for shock value. We try to decide what is important and explain why it’s important, and we hope you agree. And if you don’t, please let us know.
I say this because you may think less of journalists or stringers after seeing this movie, but remember that it’s a movie. It’s not reality. And that’s why it was tough for me to watch at times — because while it’s not real, it was real for me in so many ways because I look at this stage every day. It’s my workplace. It’s a good chance for me — and for all of us — to make sure that our lives and our professions aren’t becoming the stuff of Hollywood suspense. Let’s leave the drama to the actors!