For most of the 1980s and 90s, husband-and-wife reporters Bob Tur and Marika Gerrard were stalwarts of any and all noteworthy events in California: celebrities, homicides, and natural disasters were all part of a day’s work for the couple. But as demonstrated in writer/director Matt Yoka’s Whirlybird, everything changed once the couple took to the air.
“With Bob, you’re along for the ride, and you don’t know when to get off,” Gerrard says early in the documentary. She was along for many a memorable outing, providing the country and world with a God’s-eye perspective of some of the era’s most noteworthy events. From dramatic SWAT team drug busts and car chases to the Reginald Denney beating during the Rodney King riots and the O.J. Simpson Bronco highway chase, Tur and Gerrard captured it all.
It was a time of a burgeoning 24-hours news cycle in which stations were racing to get the news first, accuracy be damned. And Tur was always determined to be the first at the scene, whether it’s a raging fire or domestic dispute. Gerrard recounts their first date, which involved him taking her to the scene of a murder, but it was not long before his drive took them to even greater heights, quite literally.
“…Tur was always determined to be the first at the scene, whether it’s a raging fire or domestic dispute.”
During their relationship, Tur had been secretly squirreling away cash for a helicopter, as he planned to obtain his pilot’s license and take to the skies to further their career. We witness the couple’s account of the Reginald Denny beating, in which we get a glimpse of Tur’s uglier side. Prone to fits of rage, he impulsively adds his own commentary to the proceedings. “These people are not people,” he spewed — a comment that today is met with regret and sadness.
“Testosterone in my system really equals a*****e,” the man admits. And just as we are witnessing behavior that seems to serve as the inspiration for Jake Gyllenhaal’s Nightcrawler lead, Whirlybird takes a steep approach toward their personal lives. Tur admits to the toxic masculinity that was emblematic of Bob, but now through the eyes of Zoey, after coming out as transgender in 2013. Zoey does not seek sympathy for past actions and accepts full responsibility for the pain caused.
Yoka presents Tur’s tale interspersed with thrilling, candid footage the couple captured through the years, including the verbal and physical assaults many received from the man’s incendiary temper. There is almost an embarrassment of narrative riches here that the filmmaker only touches upon to provide us Zoey’s story. The news industry’s evolution, the power dynamics between males and females, and the racial tensions behind the riots are all touched on briefly before we get to the next chapter in Tur’s journey.
To both the filmmaker and subject’s credit, neither feel that the transition to Zoey should excuse past behavior, and the director lets her sit with her thoughts. She processes her actions in front of the camera as she surveys the wreckage of her life. This is what makes Whirlybird such a wholly unique story, ultimately resonating as a portrait of a deeply flawed person. Happily, Tur did eventually found inner peace despite having outwardly caused chaos for others along the way.
"…a wholly unique story, ultimately resonating as a portrait of a deeply flawed person..."