Sundance 2020: Whirlybird review – a look at the history of Los Angeles through the lens of breaking news and a breaking family

January 29, 2020
Michael Frank 0
Festivals, Film Reviews


Archival footage and a compelling family make Matt Yoka’s Whirlybird a worthy entry into the documentary filmmaking canon. 



Archival footage and a compelling family make Matt Yoka’s Whirlybird a worthy entry into the documentary filmmaking canon. 

Even if you aren’t a native Los Angeles resident, you likely know its history. You know about the big wildfires and earthquakes, the O.J. Simpson pursuit and criminal trial, the Rodney King riots. Throughout these breaking news incidents, two journalists flew in the center: Bob Tur and Marika Gerrard, the husband and wife duo of LA News Service. 

Tur and Gerrard start covering news in their cars, driving to the scenes of crimes, using police scanners to catch the scoop before bigger stations. They transition into flying a helicopter around Los Angeles, getting the news from above and becoming some of the first people to cover breaking news in real-time. They fell in love with each other and with the work they were doing. Living story to story and paycheck to paycheck, Tur and Gerrard start a family while growing in popularity, with Tur becoming somewhat of a celebrity journalist.

Whirlybird director Matt Yoka continually switches from archival footage, and lots of home videos, to the present day, in which Bob Tur has transitioned into Zoey Tur at the age of 58. Yoka chronicles this couple’s marriage, focusing on Tur’s anger issues and emotional abuse towards Gerrard. Tur contained an excessive amount of perfectionism, criticizing little details of those in her immediate circles, leading to an incredible work ethic but an abusive marriage. This attitude and almost excessive passion to constantly get the next story propelled the two into commercial and critical success, culminating in a stress-induced heart attack while Zoey was in her 30s. 

In their helicopter, one of the first news planes of its time, Tur and Gerrard covered the biggest LA stories of the last 25 years, making headlines on a weekly basis. They saved lives, they flew too close to the fires, and they filmed every single thing in their lives. This couple captured the O.J. police chase in real time, becoming the first station on the scene and the first people to find the missing athlete. They weren’t perfect at their jobs, but due to Zoey’s endless pursuit of excellence, they got close. 

Yoka’s documentary is at its peak when it focuses on Zoey Tur and her attitude towards her life. She moved away from the city, living by herself in the wilderness, away from helicopters, news stations, and the angry life she used to live. Her reflective regret blankets the entire film and her story keeps you engaged when you’re seeing news clips you vaguely remember from earlier in your own life. Yoka pushes the question of how fulfilling your dreams can lead to unintended consequences and the effects of this pursuit of fame and fortune. Not every story they cover will interest you, but these people and their lives should be engrossing enough to keep you watching. 

At the least, Whirlybird is a portrait of breaking news in LA through the eyes of a couple slowly tearing at the seams. At the best, Whirlybird serves as an introspective piece of documentary filmmaking and an intimate telling of a resonating story about people making news in one of the world’s largest cities. 

This review was filed from Sundance 2020. Check out all of our coverage from the festival.

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