Watching my favorite films is always a comfort in times of emotional stress. Being inserted into a world outside of my own, whether that world is funny, scary, or thrilling, has always done the job. However, as I landed on a rewatch of Nightcrawler recently, I was struck with a new level of realization that this film is closely tied to the anxieties about world affairs that I was looking to escape, albeit semi-indirectly. The film doesn’t deal with racial oppression, nations on fire, or impending war; rather, it explores media mistrust and the intentional inaccuracy of information being delivered to the public.
Nightcrawler follows Lou Bloom (Jake Gyllenhaal), a petty criminal who turns to “night crawling”– filming accidents, tragedies, and other calamities, and then selling the footage to news companies — when slight larcenies lose their thrill. His relationship with KWLA director, Nina Romina (Rene Russo), drives the film, as she asserts that the more horrifying the footage is to their viewers, upper-middle-class suburban white families, the higher the ratings. In response, the already left-of-north moral compass of Lou becomes completely demagnetized.
“Fake news” and biased media in today’s culture are undeniably the driving force of political unrest all over the world: When objective events fall victim to subjective manipulations and partialities, ignited issues only metastasize. Nightcrawler delves into the unethically authorized powers of modern newscasting, and how its influence is a force that augments the agitation of domestic and foreign affairs in any, and every, nation. Television news is new wave political propaganda. Information is an industry, not a charity, and falsities, when coy enough to be ambiguous, funnel funds and keep viewers tuning in like leeches, desperately needing to know something, and often obliviously unsure if it’s honest.
Confirmation bias is arguably the largest influence on what gets broadcast, and what stations viewers choose to watch, and this cyclical relationship is a toxic one. People want their deep-seated prejudices verified. Nina, as the figure representative of the industry, is constantly pushing the KWLA agenda: urban crime creeping into the suburbs. Nina reinforces this not only through the content she demands, but through snide comments like “A carjacking in Compton…that’s not news now is it?” Laid out explicitly, Lou’s supply and demand are bonded by the desire for white victims at the hands of poor people of color. The agenda of the KWLA morning news demonizes the image of what urban means, and perpetuates an aversion to a constructed profile of minorities in the area. Lou chuckles through the process of choosing which radio call to pursue, as he wants victims, but “not the kind that live on 6th and Rampart.”
News is redefined by the station to only apply to the confirmation biases of individuals in a position of privilege. Ideas of class and color are projected onto tragedies that would remain brutal and horrific even if shrouded in anonymity. Consequently, the information channeled into the homes of their audience is handpicked to sustain antipathy against poor minorities by reframing racism and classism as justifiable fears that are validated every morning by the new report.
This further mirrors how popular news media exploits people of color as devices for white fear and then expresses disclination towards other forms of their expendability. Rick (Riz Ahmed) serves as a prime example. Homeless and jobless, he represents underprivileged people of color, whose desperation and desire to make a better life for themselves makes them prime targets for manipulation at the hands of those most powerful. Lou often dangles compensation over Rick’s head like a treat for a dog, only to break it in half and pocket the rest for himself. Blaming his own covert corruption on Rick, Lou cites a lack of initiative for Rick’s failure to earn more money. Rick is told he will only be rewarded by standing up for himself, but he is continually punished, and ultimately discarded when he does so. It’s a habitual, threatening mind game, satisfying and effective for Lou, but meant to keep Rick vulnerable and in submission. Rick, along with other individuals of color, are pawns in an information game intended for everyone’s “benefit,” but their own.
The precise reason for the success of propaganda through news is that media companies control the angle. Context isn’t weaved into the footage, rather it’s created by its projectors. Lou, wielding a camera, doesn’t simply capture an image — he creates one.
He drags dying bodies across the concrete to establish a better frame, explaining that a good image doesn’t just draw you in, but keeps you there. He sneaks into a home barraged by gunfire and organizes family photos around bullet holes for a maximum emotional draw. He sits idly by, hiding in the bushes at an active crime scene and allows murderers to escape, so that the story can continue, and a buck can be made. He enters said crime scene and films dying bodies up close, because if it bleeds, it leads.
Lou, in combination with Nina, neglect to provide adequate context for any of the events they broadcast on the news. Lou’s staging of crime scenes disregards ethics and disrespects human lives for aesthetics. It serves as an explicit parallel to manipulating a narrative for an optic aim. Nina, inserting B-roll of crying kids onto new stories and scripting anchors to incessantly utter words like “vicious,” “on the loose,” and “grisly,” formulates an inauthentic context and instigates heightened fear in KWLA viewers, and the community at large. Both Lou and Nina remain stagnant, permitting the unnecessary rise of body counts and public alarm to thrive in order to maximize their payout and keep viewers consumed, thinking their lives depend on it. Nightcrawler often straddles the line between legality and morality in the information industry, but Lou and Nina aren’t truly concerned with either.
“On TV it looks so real.”
Vision isn’t objective. Not even evidence is objective. Information is victim to manipulation, exploitation, and confirmation bias. Agendas are pushed through the reframing, staging, and perspectives of television news. This fervent desire to sway public opinion into a company’s own constructed box is most simply defined as propaganda. It’s weaponized manipulation of information to keep viewers coming to your channel, consumed by the sensation, either morbidly or desperately. Nightcrawler glaringly addresses that when faced with such intrepid dishonesty, it’s easier on the mind, though more dreadful on the soul, to perceive it as the truth. This is the reality of the information industry, spearheaded by television news media.
In the film, white suburbia is pit against urban people of color. In our world, it can be this, or it can be left v. right, science v. religion, or generally speaking, any one group v. the freedom of another — whether that’s the freedom to or freedom from is up to those behind the scenes. News media today is moreso a slew of opinions than an objective, truthful report. In this age of global affairs and television news, context is often left unknown or debated, and Nightcrawler displays this fearlessly. For us out here in the real world, all we can do is read all the perspectives we can and try to infer that the truth is somewhere in the middle. Right now, it’s more important than ever.