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Dark descent to ethics-free journalism

Nightcrawler(MA). Director: Dan Gilroy. Starring: Jake Gyllenhaal, Rene Russo, Riz Ahmed. 117 minutes

In the summer of 1997 the Los Angeles Times stretched the ethical presumptions of fly-on-the-wall journalism to near breaking point. According to the American Journalism Review in March 1998, the reporter and photographer behind the paper's 'Orphans of addiction' series watched as children as young as three 'were endangered and neglected time and time again by their drug-addicted parents'.

The story made for powerful reading, and led to at least one of the children being eventually rescued by Child Services. But 'at least four months elapsed from the time the Times found the children to the day after the series began', the AJR said. 'By the time the story came out, that kid could have been dead,' Michael Nash, then presiding judge of the Los Angeles County juvenile court, told the journal.

The 'intervention dilemma' is a perennial consideration for journalists and those who pay them. The desire to objectively document reality, to 'hold a mirror up to society' (in the words of the Times reporters) is a noble and vital function of news media. But the decision to intervene or not when lives are in danger ought to be dictated by robust personal and institutional ethics. In this instance the Times' decision to not intervene was questionable.

But what happens when those ethics are stripped away altogether, and replaced by the bottom line? Nightcrawler, the directorial debut of Californian filmmaker Gilroy, probes the inner workings of a ratings-chasing LA television news network whose bread and butter are sensationalised stories about accidents and class-based crime. They're not alone in this: they are just trying to keep up with their competitors.

'Is there a problem with us running this?' veteran producer Nina Romina (a formidable Russo) asks a colleague regarding one piece of grainy, gory crime scene footage. 'You mean legally?' said colleague replies. 'No, morally,' Nina spits sarcastically. Hers is in fact a morally bankrupt world. Ethical questions are raised only by skittish offsiders, whose qualms are quickly quashed by the necessity for higher ratings.

It proves to be the kind of world where a person like Louis Bloom can thrive. Gyllenhaal brings an easy smile and cold, dead eyes to his portrayal of a resourceful and ambitious sociopath who raises himself from petty thief to the rank of nightcrawler — a cameraman who specialises in shooting the aftermath of road accidents and violent crimes, and selling the footage to news networks.

Louis has the personality profile to match the job title. He is well aware of the value of his sordid work to those who pay him, lucratively, to do it. He uses this to manipulate Nina professionally and sexually. He has delusions of grandeur, too, increasingly influencing the scenarios he shoots in order to maximise their artistic and financial merit. His faith in Nina's cynicism pays off: she laps it up.

Nightcrawler is a jet-black satire that, like Scorsese's The Wolf of Wall Street, paints a world where the evil and the corrupt are allowed to thrive, because their evil and corruption stem from the same kinds of preoccupations with material comfort that are simply the hallmarks of unreconstructed Western society. Nina's desire for job security and Louis' for wealth and fame are all too relatable.

And like Wolf it is laced with humour; Louis' faux-managerial interactions with his hapless intern Rick (Ahmed) are downright hilarious. This makes Louis engagingly likeable, but doesn't change the fact that he, the film's hero, is merely a sympathetic villain. Just as Scorsese's film tacitly implicated us in the excesses of Wall Street, Gilroy's demands discernment in what we consume as news.

Tim KroenertTim Kroenert is assistant editor of Eureka Street.

Topic tags: Tim Kroenert, Nightcrawler, Dan Gilroy, Jake Gyllenhaal, Rene Russo



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