Not since Paddy Chayefsky’s “Network” have characters been chewed and spit out by TV news quite like they have been of late at the movies.
“Nightcrawler” and “Gone Girl” both present portraits of a preying, narrative-distorting media, whether staked out on the lawn or hunting down a homicide for the 11 o’clock news. While the films differ greatly and have other thoughts in their heads, both show the behind-the-scenes pursuit of that old mantra: “If it bleeds, it leads.”
“Gone Girl” and “Nightcrawler” join a rich tradition of films that have found drama in the not-always-altruistic machinations of the news.
The tart, shadowy “The Sweet Smell of Success” relished the sordid power play between a big-time columnist and a desperate press agent. Michael Mann’s “60 Minutes” whistle-blower tale “The Insider” captured the looming threat of corporate interference. And of course, nothing has skewered the brainless local news host like Will Ferrell and Adam McKay’s “Anchorman” movies.
Just as it did in “Network” – the story of “a man who was killed because he had lousy ratings” – the grim specter of Nielsen hovers over “Nightcrawler.” Jake Gyllenhaal plays a loner who becomes enamored of the sleazy, ambulance-chasing business of freelance crime video for the local news. His rise is aided not just by his lack of ethics and willingness to manipulate crime scenes for dramatic effect, but by a TV producer (Rene Russo) striving to raise the late-night program from the bottom of the ratings.
In one scene, she wonders about particularly grisly footage of a home invasion: “Can we show this?” Another producer asks, “Legally?” and she satirically responds, “No, morally. Of course legally.”
Writer-director Dan Gilroy, a veteran Hollywood screenwriter, says he went out of his way not to judge the media.
“I don’t think the media’s flawed,” says Gilroy. “The media is part of a much larger math equation.”
“Nightcrawler” mostly takes after Billy Wilder’s “Ace in the Hole,” in which Kirk Douglas, playing a big-city reporter stopping over in Albuquerque, orchestrates a media circus out of a man trapped in a cave. “Bad news sells best,” he instructs. “Cause good news is no news.”
But while “Ace in the Hole” focuses on the fraudulence of a down-and-out reporter, Gilroy sees the nocturnal operators of “Nightcrawler” as cogs in a much larger machine built sensibly, if dispiritingly, around satisfying demand.
“You can drive down the freeway in Los Angeles and be stuck in a five-mile traffic jam,” says Gilroy. “When you finally get up there, you realize there’s some hideous, five-person fatality in the other lane. And you can say to yourself, and I often do, ‘I’m not going to look.’ And yet nine times out of ten, I find myself glancing over and becoming another idiot that slows things down. The media’s only feeding us what we seem to want to eat.”
Though “Nightcrawler” is set in LA, where TMZ crews roam the streets, “Gone Girl” has the more direct connection to today’s celebrity journalism. For the adaptation of Gillian Flynn’s best-selling novel, director David Fincher cast Ben Affleck partly because the actor became regular tabloid fodder during his romance with Jennifer Lopez.
“He’s been grist for this mill,” Fincher said in an earlier interview. “He’s very funny about it. He can tell you from the other side of the paparazzi flashes what it’s like to open-mouth-insert-both-feet and simultaneously step on a land mine.”
In “Gone Girl,” the hit of the fall with a worldwide gross of nearly $300 million, Affleck’s Nick Dunne gets put under the glare of the media when his wife (Rosamund Pike) goes missing. After a few PR missteps, the press (especially a Nancy Grace lookalike) paints him as a murderer. Soon, their cameras are camped outside his house, their flashes reflecting through his windows.
“The 24-hour cable news cycle and the beast that must be fed and the notion of tragedy vampirism was undeniably potent fuel for the narrative,” says Fincher. “Nick Dunne takes his lumps.”
“Gone Girl” becomes a story about public relations in private affairs – how narratives are shaped, both out in the media and at home in a marriage.
There are other journalists of various repute on screen this fall. An ax-grinding New York Times theater critic is a vital figure in Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu’s “Birdman.” A reporter (again from the Times) of questionable motives trails Chris Rock in the comedy “Take Five.”
In “The Interview,” James Franco and Seth Rogan are a celebrity news show host-producer team who, craving “real” news, go to North Korea. In Luis Estrada’s “The Perfect Dictator,” currently a sensation in its native Mexico, a corrupt politician colludes with a ratings-hungry broadcaster to manufacture a sensational kidnapping story. And the drama “Rosewater” is about the true story of an imprisoned Iranian journalist made by the most famous critic of TV news, Jon Stewart.
At the movies, at least, the news business is thriving.