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‘Whirlybird’ Review: An Absorbing Look at a Sky News Pioneer’s Unconventional Life

Sundance: Ambition takes a toll in this bittersweet portrait of Zoey Tur, who famously captured the O.J. Simpson chase by helicopter.

Courtesy of Sundance

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It is extremely rare for a man to take an honest accounting of their own toxic masculinity, especially those who have actively participated in harassment and abuse. Fortunately for the makers of “Whirlybird,” a gripping documentary about an unconventional family business that captured some of the first helicopter news footage, Zoey Tur is not a man.

Tur came out publicly as transgender in 2013, making her a far more sympathetic and candid interviewee than her aggressively ambitious shadow self, Bob Tur, might have been. That’s a crucial piece of this fascinating historical snapshot, because the archival news footage with which filmmaker Matt Yoka weaves his yarn includes dozens of instances of Tur’s verbal and sometimes physical abuse towards her camera operator and former partner, Marika Gerrard. It’s uncomfortable to witness, but in Tur’s emotional final interview, she most certainly does not let herself off the hook. Her searching honesty coalesces the fractured family picture into a palatable — if bittersweet — whole.

The Tur family tale, in which a plucky young couple fall in love and raise children to a soundtrack of manhunts and forest fires, is undeniably compelling and an obvious fit for the screen. But “Whirlybird” is worth singling out for another reason: It’s a fine example of an aspirational future for trans stories, joining a new wave of films about trans people in which trans-ness is merely one part of the story, in this case even the least interesting part.

Of course, focusing elsewhere brings its own issues. If there’s one sticky element of “Whirlybird” it’s that Zoey is referred to as Bob for most of the film, a creative choice one can only hope she enthusiastically approved.

In the decades-spanning news-quality footage, Bob is an explosive presence, chasing breaking news with laser beam focus. The term “news junkie” doesn’t even come close — this is someone who bought a helicopter with a $500,000 dollar loan while scraping by with two kids at home. Bob lived life by the credo that “you can miss the greatest story in the world by a minute” — and nothing was going to stand in his way.

Bob Tur and Marika Gerrard

Courtesy of Sundance

That’s how Bob and Marika were able to film the very first live police pursuit, reinventing the way news was covered. They were on the scene at some of biggest news stories of the last 30 years, including witnessing an attempted murder during the Rodney King riots, and being the first camera crew to find O.J. Simpson’s white Ford bronco cruising down an LA freeway. Some 80 million people watched their footage live that day, becoming the pinnacle of their career — and a high Bob could never relive.

“One of the things I liked about breaking news was it diverted my mind from things going on in my head,” Zoey says. “The helicopter was a distraction from life as a family guy.”

In her own candid interviews, MSNBC correspondent and award-winning journalist Katy Tur reveals the destructive effect of her father’s single-minded ambition. “The memory I have of my dad’s face is just a camera lens,” she says over a clip of her three-year-old self asking him to put the camera down. (One shudders to think how kids of today will feel when they realize their entire lives have been uploaded to social media.) Though her eccentric childhood clearly brought pain, Tur acknowledges she owes her cutthroat instincts to her parents: “If it’s in your blood, it’s in your blood.”

Gerrard’s observations are even more devastating, as she toggles between admitting chasing a story was “an orgasmic rush,” to her admitting to the years of verbal and sometimes physical abuse. As Bob’s videographer, Gerrard was subjected to his most vitriolic bile; he barks at her to stay in focus, lean further out of the helicopter, and frame the shot exactly to his liking. These are difficult scenes to witness, but their inclusion is what makes “Whirlybird” such a brave and finely balanced film.

“Maybe his toxic masculinity was a mask he put on, because he was trying to be a man,” Gerrard muses thoughtfully. Though it’s no one’s place to judge, some may find her too forgiving, but it’s hard to fault someone who seems so at peace with herself. Besides, Gerrard and Tur divorced in 2003, and they conduct their interviews from separate homes. Though the film dances around exact details of the family’s current state, Zoey’s moving final reflections seem to suggest a deep divide.

“Bob had a lot of devil, because Bob was in a lot of pain,” Zoey says in that last interview. “I hate talking in the third person, but it’s true. Bob was a very different person.”

“Whirlybird” is a complicated, engaging, one-of-a-kind, portrait of a deeply flawed human. It contains some beautiful footage shot from the skies of Los Angeles; a snapshot of the city’s parades, beaches, mountains and stadiums. It’s nice to picture Zoey up there, chasing down another news story, soaring above her demons and the world below. If only she could have exorcised them sooner.

Grade: B+

“Whirlybird” premiered at the Sundance Film Festival’s U.S. Documentary Competition section. It is currently seeking distribution. 

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