Review by Sean Boelman
Matt Yoka’s exciting new documentary Whirlybird benefits not only from an interesting story, but also the wealth of other fascinating stories to which it is tied. Playing out like a real-life version of Nightcrawler, this is a wonderful exploration of the public’s relationship with the news, both in the past and now.
The film follows a couple of freelance reporters who revolutionized the field by being among the first to practice helicopter news gathering, being on the front lines in such famous stories as the L.A. riots and the white Bronco chase. The appeal of this to the journalistically-minded is obvious, but the general public will find interest in reliving these iconic moments.
One of the most intriguing ideas that Yoka explores is the origin of breaking news. Until the innovations made by the subjects, the information that the public received was significantly limited by the speed with which reporters could get to the scene. By taking to the air, news would be changed forever.
However, this would soon increase the demand for sensational content. The argument made by Yoka is that the public has a sort of infatuation with the idea of crime and excitement, taking pleasure in the action of this type of footage. And with the introduction of helicopters, news became less and less a source of information and more a form of entertainment.
Almost ironically, Yoka’s documentary falls victim to the same trend. Rather than being an informative biography about some of the pioneers of broadcast journalism, it ends up becoming a flashy documentary about the excitement in their careers. It’s definitely interesting, and occasionally thought-provoking, but clearly works best as infotainment.
Obviously, a great deal of the movie is composed of archive footage shot by the two subjects. And although the perspective it offers has likely been seen by many viewers, it still manages to have much of the same impact nevertheless. The images of the Rodney King attacks and the L.A. riots are particularly horrifying.
One of the areas in which the film could have used some more development is in the exploration of its subject’s personal lives. One of the subjects would later come out as transgender, and in a few segments, she discusses how her experiences led to her understanding her identity, but this feels like an afterthought to Yoka.
Whirlybird is an entertaining documentary thanks to its cinematic and sensationalized approach to its story. For the entirety of the hour-and-forty-three minute runtime, viewers will have their eyes locked on the screen.
Whirlybird screened at the 2020 AFI FEST which runs virtually October 15-22.