Whirlybird: Live Above LA review – intimate portrayal of how they got the eye in the sky

This documentary about the couple who captured live news – including the famous OJ Simpson chase – from the air, lays bare the toll on their family

Whirlybird: Live Above LA (BBC Four) sets out to be many things. It is a documentary about the evolution – brought about largely by one married couple, Bob Tur and Marika Gerrard-Tur – in live broadcast news in the US since the early 80s. It is an intimate, bittersweet portrait of the breakup of a family under pressure. It is the story of a man’s transition to life as a woman, as Bob came out publicly in 2013 as a trans woman and now lives as Zoey Tur. (I am using the names and pronouns the film and family use when talking about the past, on the assumption that Zoey, a strong, articulate presence who seems unlikely not to have made any feelings on the matter clear, signed off on the decision.) And it is an oblique study in what it takes to get things done, whether it is to revolutionise an industry, remake a body or remove yourself from a toxic relationship when, as it was for Marika, not only your domestic life and your children but also your professional existence are bound up in it.

If the film-maker Matt Yoka does not quite pull off all of these efforts his ambition remains commendable and his containment of the huge mass of material means there is still plenty of meat on all the bones.

To the news first, as the journalist and adrenaline-junkie Turs would no doubt urge. Marika met the impassioned, charismatic Bob when they were barely 20 and was soon caught up in his obsession with hunting down stories and capturing video footage of dramas unfolding in downtown Los Angeles. They married and developed a business that – literally – took off, when Bob realised that taking to the skies rather than the freeways would give them the edge over all the competition and bought (as soon as he felt they could afford it) a helicopter. They provided the first live footage of a police chase along the very freeways from which they had liberated themselves.

Soon, if an event had not been caught on their overhead camera – Marika hanging ever more perilously out of the door to get the shot while Bob piloted – it was barely news. Theirs, more or less, is the footage you see in your mind’s eye when you think of the Rodney King riots and any other big, breaking news story coming out of the city of angels – including, of course, the infamous police chase of OJ Simpson in the white Bronco after Nicole Brown was killed. Extensive footage from the Turs’ archive accompanied everything in the show. It was possibly too extensive, given how much else Yoka was trying to cram in and the need to capture the active exhilaration of shooting it rather than recreating the passive fun of consuming it at home for viewers.

About 80 million people watched the Turs’ live reporting on the Bronco chase. But even that couldn’t keep Bob satisfied for long. The family, now including two children, lived by his moods and his moods were dictated by the news cycle. The scanner was always on; the parents were always haring off to get the next thing, the next thing, the next thing.

As success grew, so did the pressure for bigger and better stories. Bob’s rages, reminiscent of his abusive father’s, became intolerable. The couple divorced in 2003. “There was a lot of verbal abuse, for the most part,” says Marika; we have heard a tiny, appalling fraction of it from the unscreened tapes. “He needed to be in control. If not, he would hit you, [there would be] silence, or screams …”

Zoey is heartbreakingly honest about her past behaviour. “I regret, I regret, I regret every day some of the despicable things I’ve done,” she says. She offers the experience of physical abuse in childhood and the unhappiness of repressing her true nature as a woman as reasons (not excuses) for them. “Bob had a lot of devil in him, because Bob was in a lot of pain,” she says. “I hate talking in the third person, but it’s true. Bob was a very different person.”

The family is obviously still in pain and divided, but how much of this is due to the abuse and how much is due to their father’s/husband’s transitioning is not teased out. We are left to wonder, infer and question how much life with (and as) an extraordinary, deeply attractive, deeply flawed person has cost them all; how much the modern emphasis on live, dramatic footage has cost or benefited the culture and much else besides. You might well wish Yoka could have drilled down into many of the issues, but nothing can cover everything. To be left in such an open, questioning, questing state is the sign of a fine documentary. Good news.

Contributor

Lucy Mangan

The GuardianTramp

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