There are quite a few stories swirling around “Whirlybird,” Matt Yoka’s promising debut documentary. Since most of them are memorable, the rough edges don’t matter much.
The central focus of “Whirlybird” is the relationship between two journalists — Bob Tur and Marika Gerrard — who fell in love while chasing news as stringers in 1980s LA. As Yoka takes us back to those long-ago days via interviews and old footage, we see immediately that Bob has always been the one with the burning drive. Marika, as gentle and easygoing as her new boyfriend is competitive, really just wants to hang out with him. You can hardly blame her: even as a student Bob has the energy of five people. He’s focused and passionate and lives on the edge, eager to do anything necessary to capture news first.
Their work together continues for decades, and thanks to Bob’s obsessive desire to record everything, we get to see it all. Despite the eventual addition of two children — their daughter, Katy Tur, grew up to become an MSNBC host — they never quite settle down. Every dollar goes toward recording equipment, every free moment is spent rushing out to a fire, or car accident, or secret celebrity wedding.
Bob even gets his own helicopter the second he can afford it. As he reports directly from the sky while Marika holds the camera, the couple go from being freelancers at their own Los Angeles News Service to working for various local stations.
Since Bob saved all his beta tapes, a second chronicle develops in tandem: that of LA itself. From their first-person perspective, we witness, among other historic events, an airborne view of the Rodney King riots and O.J.’s Bronco speeding down the highway.
Yoka spent six years sifting through and digitizing Bob’s archives, and even he may have been surprised to find that the micro story winds up being stronger than the macro one. Despite his best efforts to create a gripping history of late 20th century LA, the movie has nothing new to say about the heavily-covered events we glimpse from the old tapes.
But the more we hear — and see — the couple who serve as our tour guides through the city, the more our vision shifts.
At first, we’re just awed by their daring, as they rush into crime scenes or dangle out the side of a helicopter to capture another natural disaster. But — is Bob only shouting at Marika because the aircraft is so loud? Are the law enforcement agents he calls a–holes and imbeciles actually doing anything wrong? And does he have any right to risk the life of his assistant in the never-ending quest for a better shot?
To Bob’s credit, he’s shared even the most damning tapes with Yoka and doesn’t appear to have asked for any censorship. But the more we watch him interact with people, the fewer excuses we can make for his treatment of others as a means to his end. And then we come back to the present to understand what happened behind the scenes, via sensitive interviews conducted with everyone involved, including Marika, their now-grown children, and their former assistant, Lawrence Welk III (yep).
There’s more, though. And since it’s not presented as a spoiler, it should be shared here: As we learn in the contemporary interviews, Bob is no longer Bob, she’s Zoey. A journalist himself, Yoka skillfully avoids any sense of the exploitation or sensationalism that we see his subjects indulge in occasionally. Zoey’s identity is important, but so, the movie insists, is Marika’s. It’s only once the noise quiets and each gets an equal voice that we can see them clearly, two distinct threads in a compelling portrait of an American family.