Married news reporters Bob Tur and Marika Gerrard are probably not familiar to most people but over a 15-year period from the early 1980s to the late 1990s they covered news events from their helicopter above Los Angeles. You’ve probably seen some of their televised stories since they were among the first to capture the L.A. riots of April 1992 and the violent beating of truck driver Reginald Denny as well as the O.J. Simpson freeway pursuit in June 1994. Earlier the reporting team had gained notoriety for crashing the Madonna-Sean Penn wedding of August 1985, with the bride giving them the finger. Bob and Marika have since divorced (in 2003) but their intertwined professional career and marriage is chronicled by director Matt Yoka in Whirlybird (2020), a riveting documentary that touches on enough topics from freedom of the press to gender reassignment surgery to fuel the narratives of a dozen feature films.
Bob Tur, now known as Zoey after coming out as transgender in 2013, and Marika are interviewed separately for the documentary and offer their own perspectives on their years as reporters and, as a couple with two children, one of whom is Katy Tur, a reporter on MSNBC. The first part of the documentary rushes through the early years of the relationship as Bob first meets Marika at Westwood’s Bruin Theater in the summer of 1978 and they begin dating. “It was never a movie date or a dinner date with Bob,” Marika reveals. “It was a car crash or an air crash or a fire date.” Indeed, one of their first outings was to take photos at a murder site of L.A.’s Skid Row Slasher, a serial killer who preyed on homeless men from December 1974 through February 1975.
Bob and Marika were both swept up in the excitement of news reporting. It gave them both an adrenalin high and, for Marika, capturing a great story was like “an orgasmic rush.” A fter getting married in 1983, they begin to explore better ways to beat the competition in accessing live events and stories. The big turning point was 1985 when they bought a helicopter and landed a contract with radio station KFWB with Bob serving as pilot and Marika operating the camera. They created their own company, the Los Angeles News Service, and were soon reporting for TV station KCOP. Because they were one of the first news agencies to use a helicopter for reporting, they made a name for themselves in the early days of “breaking news” capturing major happenings like the OJ white Bronco chase that was picked up by CBS and attracted over 80 million viewers.
As the couple was achieving a level of professional and financial success that was almost unimaginable in their early years, they were also trying to raise a family and the pressures of the business took a toll because Bob could never separate work from his private life. Worst of all, he had an explosive temper that increased over time and he could be verbally demeaning to his wife and co-workers, which was reflective of his own upbringing by an abusive father. Bob’s relentless drive, rage issues and insistence on perfection culminated in a heart attack at age 35. Then, in 1997, KCBS terminated his contract and lured away most of his employees, including helicopter pilot Larry Welk, grandson of Lawrence Welk, who is interviewed in the documentary. Bob hit rock bottom after his divorce from Marika in 2003 but it led him to question his own sense of self and gender identity. “Back before the sex change and estrogen,” Zoey says on reflection, “I was infused with this wonder hormone called testosterone and testosterone in my system equals asshole.”
In some ways, Bob’s obsessive need to beat everyone else to the punch in his news coverage of horrific and tragic events mirrors the behavior of Jake Gyllenhaal’s ambulance chaser in Nightcrawler (2014), Dan Gilroy’s creepy, underrated portrait of a ruthless amateur cameraman. Bob Tur could have easily been the model for that character but it was actually the New York City photographer Weegee, who was the inspiration for Gilroy’s screenplay.
Tur’s volatile nature eventually became too much for him to bear and he decided to put an end to his life as a man in 2013 and flew to Thailand for gender reassignment surgery. But this is only part of the story told in Whirlybird. The documentary also serves as a fascinating time capsule of Los Angeles over a 20 plus year period as we get brief glimpses of rising urban crime, police brutality (the beating of Rodney King) and pop culture moments like Michael Jackson being rushed to the hospital after head and facial burns from shooting a Pepsi commercial in January 1984.
Whirlybird is also important for depicting a major transition period in the American media when morning and evening news reporting were usurped by 24-hour news coverage for audiences who had become addicted to breaking news. Innovative outfits like the Los Angeles News Service were seen as ground-breaking pioneers in this 20th century phenomenon but they were also seen as reckless and potentially dangerous by some critics. Zoey admits when looking back at some of his live reporting as Bob that he was often too revved up and uncensored in his commentary and it was bound to influence viewers’ opinions. As he witnesses Reginald Denny being beaten almost to death, we hear him saying, “This is terrible. These people are not people.”
It is true that much of what Bob and Marika covered were the worst aspects of humanity because that is what breaking news is all about – gang warfare, drug raids, drive-by shootings, murders, car chases. Most of this succeeded in painting a bleak picture of Los Angeles and made people more afraid than ever to leave their homes. Even worse, it often played the race card, whether consciously or not, portraying the black communities as war zones, an assessment which only polarized viewers.
While the Los Angeles News Service certainly deserves some blame for enforcing negative stereotypes about poor neighborhoods and fanning fears of a social order collapse, they also, unlike most rival reporters, put themselves in harm’s way often to actually aid or help people in distress as they were filming. One famous example, featured in Whirlybird, is Bob rescuing 54 people stranded on the roof of a Redondo Beach hotel that collapsed in a storm in 1988.
Last but not least Whirlybird functions as an expose on toxic masculinity but Bob’s solution of putting an end to it by becoming Zoey seems like an extreme solution to a complex problem. Is it really just a matter of hormonal imbalance? Don’t psychological and environmental factors play a role? In Zoey’s case, has the uncontrollable anger and aggression toward others been eliminated? The documentary doesn’t really answer these questions though it does show a relaxed, self-reflective Zoey at the end, living in a rustic setting in Northern California with her dogs, far away from the urban rat race.
In an interview with Stephen Saito of The Moveable Feast, director Matt Yoka remarked: “I wonder if people find the ending a little bit unsatisfying because these relationships are still very broken and to their credit, I like to think of this film as a major step in trying to heal and grow. Sometimes I envision that there could be a sequel to the film, but in a lot of ways, I really did want to keep it focused on their marriage years and their work as the L.A. News Service, so the story continues. There’s a lot more life to live for all of them, and I hope that the film was some sort of radical therapy that will allow them to continue to make sense of themselves and I’ll say it was a therapeutic experience for me as well.”
Whirlybird originally premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in January 2020 but didn’t go into theatrical release in the U.S. until August 2021. The easiest way to view the documentary is to stream it on Vudu, Amazon Instant Video and iTunes.
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