Whirlybird is a portrait documentary that operates on three different levels. First, it’s a sprawling chronicle of the rise of “eye-witness” news in 1980s Los Angeles. More acutely, it charts the use of helicopters as a primary tool of news organizations to capture and transmit live footage for sensationalistic stories. Most intriguingly, however, the film explores the personal stakes of a life dedicated to chasing the news, an endeavor that is both fast-moving and never-ending. These parallel tracks on which the film operates sometimes bleed into one another and other times feel too strictly separated, as if the filmmakers struggled to find the editorial balance between period-specific generalities and intimate personal insights. But perhaps that imbalanced dynamic is appropriate, since Whirlybird is quite a wild ride.
The film opens on archival news footage shot from a helicopter soaring over L.A., with an on-camera personality excitedly promising unmatched access to the viewing audience. “You didn’t get to see the whole story, but we’re going to show it to you this time,” the speaker guarantees, as if psychically jumping ahead three decades and speaking directly to us. That speaker is Zoey Tur, who for years was one of the most prominent and ubiquitous sources of eye-witness news footage in the L.A. area. Zoey is the film’s lightning rod, the wild orbit around which all of the film’s drama revolves, and without her decades of tunnel-visioned focus on escalating innovations and tactics in the news-gathering business, there wouldn’t be a film. But all that ambition comes at a cost, and for Zoey, that cost was any semblance of a normal, cohesive family environment.
Throughout the ‘80s and into the ‘90s, Zoey and her wife, Marika Gerrard, covered every high-profile story in L.A. and captured all of the seminal stories that crossed over into national prominence, including the 1992 L.A. riots and the infamous white Bronco chase that preceded the O.J. Simpson trial. Life never stopped for the couple, who tracked every news item closely and even brought their infant children along when hunting the seediest of stories. “There was always a scanner going,” Marika confesses in an interview.
There was also always a camera going, in seems, and not just to capture the news. Director Matt Yoka uses the Turs’ own deep archive of footage to reveal Zoey’s obsession with documenting every stray moment of reality, including everyday moments away from the job. Some of them are innocuous, but others are revealing: while on vacation in Hawaii, the couple seems positively bored, unsure of what to do with free time in paradise. Even while reflecting on their obsession, they can’t wait to return to it. That obsession, driven specifically by Zoey’s insistence upon perfection, slowly devolved into resentment and abuse, stripping away any stray sense of trust and security.
A travelogue of gradual familial discord among voracious news chasers through the era that saw the rise of live-feed coverage and was dotted with transcendent national stories would be enough terrain for a doc feature, particularly with a character as fascinating as Zoey. But there’s an extra layer to Zoey: in all the footage Whirlybird uses to tell her story, Zoey Tur was known as Bob Tur. I feel uncomfortable enough using the dead name of a trans person, but more uncomfortable still that every person interviewed in the film freely dead-names Zoey throughout. Perhaps that’s more a function of storytelling necessity, since “Bob” is the centerpiece of the archival footage that makes up 90% of the film. On top of that, it seems that everyone interviewed truly views “Bob” as a separate entity, a ghost whose presence is gone but whose memory remains like a scar that won’t fade.
The handling of “Bob” vs. Zoey is indicative of Whirlybird’s inherent thematic confusion. In a film that already struggles to shift its focus between the broader context of this period in history with its personal implications for the Tur family, the added layer of Zoey’s transition hits on a sort of complexity that seems outside the film’s grasp. The notion of gender dysphoria is treated as an after-thought, and when Zoey says late in the film, “I couldn’t survive as a male,” it feels like the sort of insight that needed to be gradually addressed throughout the story.
Perhaps such a consistent approach proved difficult for the filmmakers because they are profiling an individual whose nuances run so deep they can’t be fully represented. Even Zoey herself seems unable to fully actualize herself as she narrates her own first-person perspective. Late in the film, lost in a stream of consciousness, sorting through decades of regret, Zoey seems detached from the notion that she even still exists: “I’m not around anymore – but at least we have the archive.”