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October 31, 2014

“All I want out of life”, Diana Christensen said in Network, “is a 30 share and a 20 rating”, as much to convince herself as anyone else. Thirty-some years later, in Morning Glory, Becky Fuller echoes Diana’s fate, albeit with a happier ending. Still, we see television news as a corrupting influence, damaging its producers’ ability to engage in normal human relationships.

With Nightcrawler, writer/director Dan Gilroy pushes on to the next logical step: if news media can skew a producer’s mindset, might it not also attract some people who are pretty skewed already? The resulting film crosses Network with American Psycho, complete with a truly creepy leading performance from Jake Gyllenhaal.

Gyllenhaal indeed borrows more than a little from Christian Bale’s work as Patrick Bateman to craft Lou Bloom’s character. Lou isn’t as high status as Patrick, though; he never went to college, but he reads a lot and learns quickly, and he repeats what he reads verbatim — just like Patrick did — almost as a replacement for a real personality. Given Patrick’s opportunities, Lou might well have found a home on today’s Wall Street. As it is, he’s hustling scrap metal to contractors and asking them for jobs, not quite realizing that they might find an all-but-admitted thief untrustworthy.

And then one night he passes an accident on the highway. He pulls over to stare, and is quickly joined by Joe Loder (Bill Paxton), a freelance videographer who grabs some footage and speeds off in his mobile editing bay. Lou is hooked: he can prowl the city at night and get paid for it. Joe isn’t hiring, so Lou goes into business for himself. He steals a bike to hock for a camcorder and a police scanner, hires the desperate Rick (Riz Ahmed) as his assistant, and soon finds a good buyer in morning news producer Nina Romina (Rene Russo).

Lou is clearly sociopathic. He doesn’t seem to understand how human beings work, but he doesn’t much care either. As one of the seminars he quotes might say, he knows his strengths and his weaknesses, and he seeks to capitalize on the former while improving on the latter. He has no compunction about straying well beyond any ethical boundaries if it serves his interests, and that can be very profitable indeed in a business that already lives on the fringes of good taste.

But while Lou and his work are the source of the film’s most thrilling sequences, Nina is the really interesting character. It’s obvious that Lou sees the whole of Los Angeles television news as a big game he wants to get really good at, while the broken bodies filling his lens are little more than playing pieces. It’s easy for us to look at him with scorn. But is Nina, as the producer, any less culpable?

We normally don’t even think about news producers. The anchors are right there on the screen, and obviously someone’s shooting the remote video even if it’s not a camera crew employed by the station, but the producer is hidden in the control booth. And it’s Nina’s choices, as the producer, that make Lou’s tactics profitable. Just as she’s normally invisible to the audience, the people of the city are abstracted from her. She only interacts with them as footage Lou brings in, or as numbers on a ratings sheet, and she treats them no less instrumentally than Lou does. Network said that working in television news can damage the capacity for normal human interactions; Nightcrawler asks a more pointed question: are today’s news producers themselves, in effect, sociopaths?

If there’s a failure here, it’s that Gilroy doesn’t go far enough. If Nina, as a news producer, bears responsibility for Lou’s actions by creating an environment that rewards sensationalism, doesn’t the audience itself bear responsibility for her actions? Lou doesn’t want the biggest, bloodiest crime scenes in the richest, whitest neighborhoods of L.A. because he gets off on carnage; Nina told him that’s what she would pay the most for. And she isn’t out to stoke racial tensions or anything like that; she just knows that’s what audiences tune in for, and if they don’t tune in, she loses her job.

A friend of mine used to insist that local news should only cover four subjects: weather, traffic, sports, and local government. And that was fifteen years ago, when they even did much of that. According to a statistic Lou quotes to Nina, even that truly pertinent information has been crammed down to the tiniest sliver of the newscast; the rest of the time is filled with splashy tabloid fare. And as audiences — particularly younger ones — opt out of watching entirely, those who remain consist more and more of those who just want their prejudices pandered to.

Sensationalism in local news is like a kudzu that, once granted a toehold, chokes out anything more useful and valuable. And it’s our own fault that it got such a toehold in the first place. It’s the same across any medium: we bear the responsibility to be mindful of the content we consume. Indulgence is fine when we’re aware that it’s indulgent, but it needs to be balanced against more thoughtful fare. It’s a big problem when local television news is reduced to “a screaming woman running down the street with her throat cut”, or when people back up their assertions that first-person shooters are the only worthwhile video games with rape threats, or when we can’t pay attention to a critique of our degenerating media landscape without tying it to a high-speed car chase.

Worth It: yes.
Bechdel Test: fail.

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