Thursday, November 27, 2014

Nightcrawler: If It Bleeds, It Leads

On Thanksgiving Day, I’m not sure I’m thankful for the 24-hour news cycle. Not long ago, as I was stuck in L.A. traffic, I kept hearing teasers on my favorite radio station: the verdict by the Grand Jury regarding the death of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, would be coming soon.  As the clock ticked on, and my car inched its way homeward, suspense mounted. Would police officer Darren Wilson be indicted, or walk away a free man? Would a growing crowd outside the courthouse react peacefully, or erupt into violence? By now we know the answers to those questions. I strongly believe in the right – and the responsibility -- of a free press to tell the public what’s happening in the world. Still, at times it seemed that journalists were holding their collective breaths, just waiting for a town to go up in flames. Which, of course, would make a great top-of-the-hour story.

The idea that news coverage influences current events is not a recent one. Back in the Sixties, young people protesting the war in Vietnam and advancing their own New Left agenda would chant, “The whole world is watching!” They were right, of course. Thanks to television and other forms of mass media, their message was circling the globe. Today, the Internet has made instant messaging all the easier. The demonstrators participating in the so-called Arab Spring knew they were performing for the cameras, and that their struggles against the status quo (captured on cell phones as well as by professional news videographers) would quickly gain world-wide attention. And now, sadly, the shrewd maniacs in charge of the so-called Islamic State have discovered that video is a dandy recruiting tool. They stage the beheading of a western journalist or aid worker, then distribute the graphic footage to the news media worldwide. Soon ISIS’s latest coup is the lead item on news broadcasts everywhere, and the bloody images become must-see attractions on YouTube. 

Almost forty years ago, a movie called Network raised many hackles. This bitter, brilliant film, directed by Sidney Lumet, held television news executives responsible for pandering to the audience’s lust for sensational stories. This was the movie in which a newscaster’s suicidal rant that “I'm as mad as hell, and I'm not going to take this anymore!” drives up the ratings of a fictitious TV network to astronomical heights, leading to an increasingly outrageous manipulation of news events for Nielsen’s sake. I haven’t seen Network in many years, but I suspect that  -- in this era of Rush Limbaugh and Fox News – it won’t seem much dated. Early this past year, Dave Itzkoff published Mad as Hell:The Making of Network and the Fateful Vision of the Angriest Man in Movies, focusing on the film’s Oscar-winning screenwriter, Paddy Chayefsky. I haven’t read it, but one of these days . . . .

Meanwhile, I went to see Jake Gyllenhaal’s new release, Nightcrawler. It’s made me want to watch Network again as a point of reference. In Nightcrawler, Gyllenhaal (who also produced) plays a feckless young man, desperate for work, who finds he can earn good money from a local TV news station by shooting close-up crime and accident footage that emphasizes blood and gore. A culture built on the fact that “if it bleeds, it leads” is happy to reward him, even if he violates laws and social norms to grab the most gruesome shots possible. One thing leads to another – but you wouldn’t want me to give the plot away, would you? 

Despite it all, do find something to be thankful for.


  1. I was very thankful for a quiet day with my wife - preparing a dinner for two and watching the parades on TV. I'm also thankful for social media and blogging - which have brought me into the social circles of interesting people like you, Ms. G. Nightcrawler sounds like a very dark movie - and one I'll probably check out. I watched Network for the first time just a few years ago - and was amazed at how prescient it truly has become.

    And now we're all waiting to see if the Sony hackers will actually make good on their promise to do something to anyone who dares to go see The Interview when it opens on Christmas Day. The New York premiere has already been cancelled....your thoughts on this brouhaha?

  2. Thanks for asking, Mr. C. I think President Obama has a point in saying that Sony, like the rest of us, shouldn't cave in to terrorist threats, but I understand the fear among exhibitors. The most interesting comment I've heard is that this is a great chance for Sony to make a bundle on VOD (viewing on demand). All that free publicity for "The Interview" may turn out to be priceless . . . and help change the distribution model for Hollywood films. (That being said, I personally find it distasteful to make a comedy about assassinating an actual political leader.)