Some people have been calling Dan Gilroy's Nightcrawler a modern-day Network. Though the plots don't track at all, I can understand the comparison in the sense that both films comment on the state of news media. But I think drawing comparisons takes away from the unflinching, skillfully directed Nightcrawler's own merits. (Gilroy wrote and directed the movie.)
Set during the overnight hours in Los Angeles, Nightcrawler follows Lou Bloom, played with conviction by Jake Gyllenhaal, in top form. Lou is straightforward. He is curt and precise; he is obsessive to the point you think he has Asperger's. He's also incredibly creepy. He puts those traits to use in an endeavor to be a successful stringer, someone who captures (on video) crime scenes during the "graveyard shift," and sells his footage to news stations. (Lou develops a relationship with the news director, Nina (Rene Russo), at one news station.)
It's kind of a seedy job. It requires the stringer to detach from humanity, to insert himself into intimate, private, precarious and, often times, dangerous situations without hesitation. The hungry stringer might, for example, cross police lines to get closer to the bloody body so he can get the more gruesome shot—it's better television. Stringers really are just paparazzi for news channels. Being a stringer is not a noble profession, but what's worse is what their footage (and value of said footage) says about us.
In the newsroom, you see Nina arguing with her segment producers about what to show. They debate journalistic integrity versus ratings. Guess which version of a story wins. Of course it's the one that's gorier or more salacious. Of course it's the footage of the victim with blood dripping down his face and not the footage of the police officer explaining what happened. Watching the gripping scene in which Nina directs the news story her anchors are reporting on air gives you keen insight into the American zeitgeist.
Because Nina isn't making her decisions based on what she learned at Columbia (or wherever she went to journalism school). She's making the decisions based on ratings, based on what will grab and keep viewers' attention not just throughout her broadcast, but through the next day's and the day after that. The fact that such torture porn not only passes for news but is what we demand from our news broadcasts makes me mad as hell.
But Lou loves it. He's found something he's good at and he's going to be successful no matter the cost. He's a Rand-ian character in that sense, thinking only of what's good for himself and his place in the world. You have to have that sense about you, it seems, to excel in the business. Gyllenhaal (If There is I Haven't Found it Yet) turns in one of his best performances to date. He is focused and intense. His voice sounds disarmingly calm as the ambitious Lou makes his demands and manipulates every situation. Gyllenhaal has been refocusing his own career, going after complex characters rather than box office receipts. It's paying off. He brings us a disturbed person, and what's so disturbing is how—creepy as Lou is—you can understand and maybe even relate to his drive and determination. As Lou says, "If you want to win the lottery, you have to make the money to buy a ticket." Makes sense.
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