“Whirlybird” is “An American Family” in Breaking News, an adrenalin-fueled rush of live, broadcast journalism as it was practiced in a huge, violent city set against the backdrop of family success, glory and dysfunction.
It’s a riveting account the rise of “coming to you LIVE via Chopper 2, 4, 6 or 13” journalism as practiced by the people who invented it. And it’s a sobering take on what that “Nightcrawler” lifestyle costs the people who live it and the culture that’s become addicted to it.
You might not remember the names “Bob Tur” with “my wife Marika on camera” if you live outside of Los Angeles. But if you saw truck driver Reginald Denny dragged from his rig and nearly beaten to death in the riots that followed the verdict in the police beating of Rodney King, you saw their work. If you saw the slow-motion chase that preceded O.J. Simpson’s arrest, “Chopper Bob” was there first.
From Madonna’s wedding to Sean Penn to decades of plane crashes, floods and the Northridge Earthquake, this husband and wife team, founders of the indie L.A. News Service and later employees of the top-rated TV stations in Los Angeles, documented the city at its most tragic, violent and infamous.
And even if you never learned their omnipresent names and faces because you lived far from there, you know their work and their offspring. They’re the parents of NBC News reporter Katy Tur.
Matt Yoka’s film covers the family’s rise, from “video nerd” Bob meeting and courting college grad and theater usher Marika, to their self-taught dive into freelance TV news coverage, on into Bob’s mania for “getting their first” because “You can miss the greatest story in the world — by a minute,” and their transition into pioneering TV “live breaking news” helicopter reporting into Bob’s later transition — into Zoey Tur, after a divorce, the collapse of their business and a sex change.
That’s a lot to take in, and Yoka, using interviews with the family, generous samplings of home movies and their reportorial “greatest hits,” delivers an immersive, exhausting and tragedy-tinged film that mimics the adrenalin junkie nature of the work, the never-ending “deadline” and fear of “missing the big story” and the short fuse that amplifies the abuse Tur heaped upon others as they worked in that pressure cooker.
Marika Gerrard dissects the disconnect that experiencing life through a news camera viewfinder creates, and Zoey admits that it wasn’t until covering the story that made them, a passenger jet crash, that she was taken aback by the idea that this wasn’t just a “story” and that they had some of the first video. Those were “people” and “families” whose lives ended, and ended up on the evening news.
“Whirlybird” charts a rising mania in Tur set against the troubling abuse that accompanied what became a literally all-consuming job, with the fame and riches that came with it.
Here’s little Katy Tur, barely old enough to walk, practicing her TV “stand-up.” And there she is in the chopper with Dad as he spies a small plane crash.
The family and their star second pilot, Lawrence Welk III, note Bob’s soaring ego and messianic turns — executing rescues in flooding and earthquake stories they were covering, collecting Emmys and FAA violations and suspensions all along the way.
The film is a helluva rush and a helluva ride, tracking both the creation of and rising popularity of a style of journalism, a family’s collapse and a man’s acceptance of both his rage and role in all of that, and of the gender dysphoria that led him to transition into a woman. Bob Tur accepted this just as America was turning a corner on tolerance of transgender people.
And if Yoka wasn’t actually there, documenting this disintegrating “American Family” as it came apart, he still did a terrific job reconstructing these lives, this work and that collapse.
MPA Rating: unrated, violent news footage, profanity
Cast: Zoey Tur, Marika Gerrard, Lawrence Welk III, Jamie Tur and Katy Tur.
Credits: Directed by Matt Yoka. A Greenwich Entertainment release (Aug. 6).
Running time: 1:43