When the family of Robin Williams released a statement asking for privacy in the hours following his death this summer, ABC News responded by dispatching aerial coverage of the actor’s home for…what, exactly? What insights into grief and shock did cameramen think they would capture? What corporeal manifestation did they hope to witness—a white Bronco fleeing down the freeway? This was a moment when TV news lived down to every worst impulse the public expects of it, and when ABC couldn’t ignore the subsequent outcry over the surveillance, it finally retreated, realizing, according to a statement, “there was no news value to the live stream,” as though any news organization worth its salt couldn’t have figured that out before launching its flight of Valkyries. Of course ABC didn’t give any more of a damn about news value than Rene Russo, the TV news station manager in the new film Nightcrawler, her hunger for ratings trumping everything—and she’s a paragon of social conscience compared with her new, where-did-he-come-from video “journalist” Jake Gyllenhaal, scavenging the urban landscape for whatever human tragedies unfold after sundown. As Lou Bloom, a cyberwise autodidact for whom school is the Web at its most crackpot, Gyllenhaal first comes off part Chauncey Gardiner and part Rupert Pupkin, somewhere between a dimwit and a naïf whose entire acquaintance with life is by way of the Internet. His smile and personality might almost be winning if you could shake every other reliably troubling instinct you have about him. Halfway through the film the monster within peeks out across the dinner table at Russo and an icy chill blows between them; visibly shuddering, in the game of moral expediency she knows she’s met her match.
Notwithstanding the likes of All the President’s Men in the 1970s or HBO’s recent The Newsroom, film and TV have always loved to hate the press. If you doubt reporters are a species lower than politicians, check out the second season of House of Cards, when the vice president pushes a fourth estate snoop (whom he’s been sleeping with) in front of a subway train; the act may be shocking for what it tells us about Kevin Spacey, but not for what it costs Kate Mara, whom the series has been savvy enough to make less sympathetic with every passing episode. As far back as the 1930s and ’40s, journalists were portrayed in movies as craven and cold-blooded, locating both their hearts and good sense only when, hard as they tried not to, they fell in love, usually with the prey they had set out to eviscerate. In Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, Jean Arthur plans to expose new United States senator James Stewart for the rube he is until she gets all swoony for his hopeless idealism. Particularly in the screwball comedies, a correspondent’s cynicism is often accompanied by high jinks that reveal him as not just a glorified nihilist but a buffoon, like Clark Gable being out-hitchhiked by the unhappy heiress whose story he wants in It Happened One Night, or Cary Grant trying to fast-talk his romantic life the way he fast-talks everyone from behind his city desk in His Girl Friday, or Stewart crossing from the political arena in Mr. Smith to the Dark(er) Side as a magazine writer in The Philadelphia Story, which laments how vicious the press can be toward the besieged and put-upon fabulously wealthy.
The witch-hunting McCarthy era found Hollywood’s view of the press growing bleaker along with the decade’s view of everything else. Journalists may have played a significant part in bringing down Senator Joe, but even as depicted in the 2005 valentine Good Night, and Good Luck, they had a brush with cowardice until CBS broadcaster Edward R. Murrow set them straight. Distinctions ethical or otherwise between journalist and politician pretty much vanished in the eyes of a 1950s Hollywood that itself was hardly guiltless when it came to persecuting people for their convictions: Enthroned at his back table in Manhattan’s 21 Club, where senators pay quivering homage to him, columnist and radio commentator Burt Lancaster in Sweet Smell of Success resembles no one so much as McCarthy himself, smearing adversaries as Communists before resorting to gloomier innuendos involving marijuana. Lancaster has as much power over his city, and maybe the country, as any mayor or governor. When Kirk Douglas’s newspaperman stumbles on the story of a New Mexico local trapped in a collapsed cave in Ace in the Hole, he rampages through everything his big break has to offer: a scoop, a job contract, the trapped man’s wife; tellingly, Douglas’s ruthless Hollywood producer in The Bad and the Beautiful a year later is a charmer by comparison. The idea that either Lancaster or Douglas could be redeemed by love (though the former has inordinately curious feelings for his sister) is laughable. In journalism as in politics, other people’s lives are a currency to be bartered on behalf of notoriety and influence.
In Nightcrawler there’s barely a semblance of politics or law or order of any kind. At Russo’s local station the token colleague with moral qualms (managing to make them sound not just quaint but hopelessly uncool) is steamrolled daily or maybe hourly; outside, the police are hapless, outsmarted at every hairpin turn by Gyllenhaal’s sociopathic man-child, a 21st-century update of Weegee, the 1940s photographer whose stark images documented the noir reality of New York City. Gyllenhaal’s terrain is Los Angeles, which emerges in Nightcrawler as an anarchic grid with the disinhibited logic of a video game. Especially in the opening montage by cinematographer Robert Elswit—who, as it happens, shot the gorgeous black-and-white Good Night, and Good Luck as well as There Will Be Blood and the last (and most spectacular) Mission: Impossible—Nightcrawler may be the most vivid portrait of nocturnal L.A. ever: shimmery and ominous, seductive and alienating, otherworldly and not so much futuristic as beyond time altogether. This isn’t the sunny utopia of the Beach Boys but the blossoming eveningscape of the Doors. Although the city keeps stealing the movie from him, Gyllenhaal most successfully holds his own when he subsumes L.A. into his elastic persona and matches the city psychosis for psychosis. His showiest role since Donnie Darko, perhaps not coincidentally it’s also his weirdest, though while Donnie discovers a world weirder than he is, for Lou it’s not weird enough.
Truth that isn’t visceral or sensationalist is for wimps in the 21st-century journalism of Gyllenhaal, Russo, and helicopters that circle the suicide sites of the stars. The information age presents—on television and radio, on the Internet and in print—a smorgasbord of facts and would-be facts from which everybody cobbles together what truth suits them; one of the reasons that bridging the country’s current cultural and political divisions feels increasingly hopeless is because nobody can agree on even the fundamentals, on which way is north or whether the world is round. Americans disagree about America because the most common consensus as to what America is or has ever been or ever was meant to be eludes us, and it eludes us because we want it to. In that context, Gyllenhaal’s Lou Bloom flourishes.
North, however, is only one direction, no matter that south, east, and west may argue otherwise. The news media are less to blame for misleading us than for inflaming our desire to be misled, as we cling to the notion, when we can’t stand to believe differently, that every story has another side of equal validity and that every question has two opposing answers of equal merit. The truth isn’t supposed to have an agenda. It’s supposed to exist for its own sake, the final arbiter of our agendas. But as some render dubious the facts of science and historical event, the truth becomes less substantively empirical and more dramatically theatrical: whatever perception is more persuasive to the most people—at which point the press bears more resemblance to the movies, where persuasiveness is everything. With so little opportunity to feel morally superior to anything else, the movies find irresistible the loathing of one doppelgänger for the other.