O. J. Simpson’s Bronco chase. Madonna flipping off paparazzi on her wedding day to Sean Penn. Michael Jackson’s sequined glove wanly waving as the pop star was wheeled to a burn unit. Whenever a big breaking news story overtook the Los Angeles TV airwaves in the ’80s and ’90s, viewers expected to hear a sign-off from married helicopter reporters Bob Tur and Marika Gerrard who spent the best — and worst — years of their relationship high in the sky. Tur was a literal news junkie, an adrenaline addict who’d emotionally crash at the end of each pursuit. “There was never a movie date with Bob,” Gerrard reflects. “It was a car crash or an air crash or a fire tape.”
“Whirlybird,” by director Matt Yoka, is the compelling story of the thrill-seeking couple’s rise and descent before their divorce in 2003. (In 2014, Bob transitioned to Zoey.) It’s a documentary about how the drive to document — that itchy awareness that somewhere in their megalopolis, something is happening — can distract people from their own reality. As the pair cruised the skies looking for trouble, both could ignore Tur’s hot-temper and Gerrard’s emotional exhaustion. Today, the exes are only able to tell their story through other people’s stories, Gerrard says, as she walks through endless shelves of gray VHS tapes. On every cassette, that day’s top story is layered with her own memories of filming it: the tension, the anxiety, the verbal abuse from her then-spouse. “Testosterone in my system really equals asshole,” Tur admits.
And yet, even this recounting of Gerrard and Tur’s turbulent romance doesn’t entirely belong to them. When Tur leased the couple’s first chopper in the early ’80s, a financial risk for two freelancers expecting their second child, the country itself was plunging into a toxic affair with the 24-hour news cycle. Yoka monitors how these tandem passions — their home-life dramas, and the TV ratings obsession with gripping footage — made it hard for their reporting to be neutral. The couple’s need for cash pushed them to seek out tape that would sell for top dollar. They were there every time overbearing LAPD Police Chief Daryl Gates’ SWAT teams burst down the doors of rumored drug dens, or shook down suspected gang members on the street. Gerrard and Tur tell Yoka they now regret how their income stream stereotyped Black and brown neighborhoods as criminal cesspools, and frightened audiences into believing that the crime rate is higher than it actually is. “We didn’t cover the good stories,” Gerrard says, an injury that remains unhealed.
Is it possible to sell images of humanity without losing your own? No, Tur admits over footage of the city’s first live-broadcast police chase, which ended when the officers shot and killed the driver of a red Cabriolet. Yoka and writer Andrea James choose to withhold the backstory behind the chase; the man had murdered a 26-year-old stranger. What matters is the effect watching a real-time death had on viewers –— not the cause.
Also left unsaid is the film’s implication that the couple’s part in dehumanizing swaths of Los Angeles exacerbated the city’s racial tensions. This comes to a head at the midpoint of the film when four LAPD officers were acquitted of beating an unarmed man named Rodney King, footage that was itself a pivot point in the power of the lens. As Los Angeles exploded, the spouses took to the skies. Tur narrated the assault on truck driver Reginald Denny on live air. “These people are not people,” Tur sputtered — words she’s now horrified to hear herself say. The couple didn’t sleep for three days, and they were never the same.
Among the tens of thousands of hours of the couple’s life’s work, Yoka is repeatedly drawn to images of an unfocused lens swirling over the landscape, a camera disoriented to what matters. Occasionally, “Whirlybird’s” score is jarringly playful for the images onscreen. But the doc is a fascinating insight into how individual choices can shape the news. The pressure of the 24/7 news cycle tore apart a family so steeped in the business that their daughter had a microphone in her hands before she could read. (Katy Tur is now an NBC correspondent.) While the marriage lasted, however, Gerrard and Tur were themselves fake news, minor celebrities who presented as a happy husband and wife team. “Whirlybird” does not offer them absolution for anesthetizing television to human tragedy. But the exes are relieved to finally report their own truth.