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'Nightcrawler' Is Media Criticism Disguised as a Thriller

I spoke to Dan Gilroy about why he thinks local TV news is bad for us and how today's lack of job security hurts young people.

Publicity still courtesy of the official Nightcrawler site

Nightcrawler, the new Hollywood thriller, is essentially Network meets Drive. It's the story of Louis (an emaciated Jake Gyllenhaal) a down-and-out young nobody who finds himself swept up in the world of the "nightcrawlers," freelance reporters for the local news. They shove their camcorders into the gory messes at crime scenes and car crashes to collect a paltry bounty from news stations in need of something salacious for the public to consume over breakfast.


It takes place in the same sodium-vapor-lit Los Angeles you may remember from Collateral, and includes some really memorable bits of atmospheric music by James Newton Howard. In other words, it has all the markings of one of those cool movies for nerd bros, like Dark City, Limitless, Memento, and yes, Donnie Darko.

But it's also been infused with two not-at-all-hidden parables: one about the local TV news being full of violence, and the other is about the terrible things that happen when there are no jobs and young people are permanently unemployed, and—more importantly—uncared for by society.

Recently I met director Dan Gilroy—who made a name for himself writing screenplays for The Fall, Real Steel, and The Bourne Legacy—while he was doing press for his film. I started the interview by asking him about TV news. To put it mildly, he's skeptical.

Photo by the author

He compares TV news to junk food that everyone consumes without thinking. "One day somebody puts the caloric intake on it, and turns out you're eating 32,000 calories every morning," he said. "I think if you could do the equivalent of the caloric intake for local television news, then you could sort of see what the actual toll is."

When Louis gets into the news footage industry, it's not that he quickly sheds his scruples; it's more that he never had any. He charges headlong into the job with all the intensity of someone on the autism spectrum, immediately hiring someone to listen to a police scanner for rich people being attacked by minorities so that he's free to master his camera technique, and look into what Gilroy calls the "caloric intake" of TV news. Here's a quote from the film that details what Louis finds:


An average half-hour of Los Angeles television news packs all its local government coverage—including budget, law enforcement, education, transportation and immigration—into 22 seconds. Local crime stories, however, not only usually led the news but filled 14 times the broadcast, averaging five minutes seven seconds.

While doing his research, Gilroy may have landed on a horrifying study of local TV news conducted by Pew back in 2004. It may not have been as bad as Nightcrawler makes it sound, but things did look pretty troubling back then.

It might be unfair to say that TV news in 2004 was shortchanging important issues—disasters are big deals!—but there's a case to me made that TV news was making a disproportionately big deal out of local crime. And it's not clear that anything's changed.

Gilroy stood by the numbers in his film, telling me, "They might be like 5 percent off here and there, but for the most part [they're] true." Since it's a fictional film, the numbers are incidental, but interesting to consider nonetheless.

The director added that the violence contributes to what he calls a "narrative of fear." Gyllenhaal's mentor of sorts, played by Renee Russo, provides a detailed blueprint, explaining exactly who needs to bleed:

Viewers are more interested in urban crime creeping into the suburbs. What that means is a victim or victims, preferably well-off and/or white, injured at the hands of the poor, or a minority. […] The best and clearest way that I can phrase it to you, Lou, to capture the spirit of what we air, is think of our newscast as a screaming woman running down the street with her throat cut.


The film also finds a way to make today's lack of job security interesting. "One of the stories that perpetually hits me is the tens of millions of people under 30 who have no job prospects and no career prospects," he said. The economy is what forces Louis into the world of the nightcrawlers. Before that, he stole scrap metal, and despite his pluckiness and his winning attitude—which he projects by aping motivational speakers throughout the film—he can't find permanent work.

"I think he's left behind any sort of romantic notions that there's a safety net for him, or that people will protect him," Gilroy said. "He thinks, I'm in this alone. I believe that there are many people in the world today who intuitively understand that they are in it alone, the world is not going to help them at all."

The hopelessness of Louis's professional life bleeds into his personality: His first move after he gets established as a nightcrawler is to hire an underling, Rick (Riz Ahmed, playing the classic vaudevillian schlemiel). Louis' first instinct is to have him work as an unpaid intern.

I had to ask if there were unpaid interns on Nightcrawler. Gilroy was adamant: "No, we didn't have one unpaid intern. We paid everybody. Absolutely. I would never have somebody working for me for free."

In tougher times, I've been unemployed, scraping by and taking any work at all. At those same times, I've watched the TV news and felt like it was part of a vast propaganda machine. Nightcrawler would have had special resonance for that younger version of me. The sense I got from talking to Gilroy was that he knew that.

"To be honest, I'm more interested in the younger generation's reaction to this film," he said. "I hope it has some relevance in the sense of, Wow, this is what I'm going through. I believe it's a touchstone experience for a lot of people."

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