‘Nightcrawler’ is a powerful exploration of ‘infotainment’ as a replacement for serious journalism and the impact it has on society as a whole.
Nightcrawler (2014) belongs in the canon of all-time classic reflexive films about the power of representation and the insidious effects of a mediated world. It sits alongside such prescient films as Network, Medium Cool, They Shoot Horses Don’t They, Putney Swope, Ace in the Hole, Man Bites Dog, Wag the Dog, Face in the Crowd and Death of a President.
Dan Gilroy’s screenplay is pure genius and Gyllenhaal and Russo are at their best as sleazy, compromised, desperate anti-heroes. The medium is the message in this dark satire about how abysmally low the U.S. media will stoop for a scoop. The media consumer is made to reflect upon the driving forces powering the ‘infotainment’ industry that has all but replaced serious journalism.
The Presentation of the Self
Lou’s character can be read through the prism of Canadian-American sociologist Erving Goffman’s (1922 – 1982) account of people not as ‘inner selves’ but as performers in social situations. In The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life (1959), Goffman suggested that ‘image management’ forms the basis of our behaviour. He divides life into ‘on stage’ and ‘back stage’ moments and sees people as ‘actors’. Rather than focusing on whether the self is ‘authentic’ or not, Goffman’s key concern was with whether or not our various performances successfully promote our social survival. As such, the self is not something independent of its ‘dramaturgical’ relationship to the social nexus of institutions and ‘roles’. Rather the ‘self’ arises from a scene that is presented and which will be credited or discredited. The self is an effect, not a cause, of the façade erected for different audiences.
While Lou (Jake Gyllenhaal) is a ‘realistically’ drawn character, he is obviously a hustler who makes his living from deceptive self-promotion. His primary skill, and the key to his success, is his ability to persuade potential employers (and employees) that he already possesses skills or assets that he can only gain if they believe in him and invest in his “abilities”. He sells them an illusion, but his success in doing so becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy – the means to his actual success. Just as he brings into being a set of real-world effects from the media images he sells, Lou also constructs a real ‘self’ from pushing his fictional persona.
Illusion and transformation by means of self-fulfilling prophecy is the leitmotif that hums beneath all of the events depicted, from Lou selling himself to Nina, the news editor at K.W.L.A., to his “I run a successful TV news business” spiel when hiring his assistant Rick for a nominal salary that amounts to virtual slavery. Lou needs the assistant to make his business “successful” and by convincing him that his business is already successful, he literally gets the outcome he wants: the youngster takes the job and works for him for almost no salary. It is all image. Lou’s competitor Joe Loader also offers to bring Lou in to a new, expanded company with high tech that doesn’t yet exist, . . . but would if he could succeed in getting a talented stringer like Lou on his team. Lou would bring the money needed to invest in the equipment.
In each of these cases the sales pitch or pretence of something substantial or better than the existing situation is used to bring it into being. And if this works for our aspirations and ambitions, then it also works for our worst fears and nightmares. Goffman’s emphasis on the ‘façade self’ has its parallel in the view of post-modern culture as a world full of two-dimensional images and simulations. Lou needs gruesome footage to get the ratings and to beat out the competition. So he invents, first, clever juxtapositions that heighten the viewer’s sense of personal tragedy and loss, giving the content more emotive appeal. Later, he actually interferes with the world that he is supposed to only record, by posing (and even moving) bodies for better camera angles and more dramatic effect.
What is most curious about Lou’s behaviour is that he chooses to exploit the victims when he could put down the camera and help them. Instead, he transforms their suffering and misfortune into a cash cow, thus feeding on other peoples’ misfortune, prolonging it, intensifying it and expanding it as much as possible. This worsens the victim’s situation, perverts and diminishes Lou’s own humanity and creates an appetite for bad news and shadenfreude in viewers. And because of the sheer volume of human misery and violence churned out, it very likely desensitises the public to human suffering as much as it has done to Lou himself.
In quantum physics, to look at something is to fundamentally alter it. Here too, not only does the subject change in front of the camera, but the cameraman himself is transformed into a blood junkie hankering after another, ever more potent fix. It should not surprise anyone, then, that Gyllenhaal transformed himself into a very convincing semblance of a vampire for the part. The consequences of broadcast news constructed by violence and tragedy-obsessed ‘reporters’ is an altered reality – a culture literally fashioned in the image of the media content it consumes.
Nightcrawler makes us question how far media is implicit in transforming the world, as opposed to merely reflecting or observing it. While media scholars share a consensus that the ‘hypodermic’ model of media effects over-estimates the power of media to shape viewers’ perceptions and behaviour, the weight of evidence from dozens of studies supports the view that exposure to media violence leads to aggression, desensitization toward violence and lack of sympathy for its victims, particularly in children. The United States surgeon general, the National Institute of Mental Health and multiple professional organisations – including the American Medical Association, the American Psychiatric Association and the American Psychological Association – all consider media violence exposure a risk factor for actual violence.
All of this gives French philosopher Jean Baudrillard’s work new social relevance. Baudrillard reminds us that we inhabit a world engulfed by constant and pervasive media images, or what he called ‘hyperreality’. He suggests, controversially, that media has transformed the ‘reality’ that most of us take for granted is separate and distinct from mere images or representations of it. In The Evil Demon of Images Baudrillard explains how images have ‘imploded’ into the real world. This reverses the conventional thinking about the causal relationship between the real and the image; instead of art imitating life, life imitates art. Images precede and shape reality.
One of Baudrillard’s most basic premises is that our real world is so thoroughly saturated with mediated images of it that there is no longer any way to access a pure or separate ‘real world’ untainted by this flux of images. Our primary experience of the world is already filtered through preconceptions and expectations that are themselves products of media culture. In a world saturated with reproductions, clichés, representations, etc. it becomes very difficult to conceptualise a solid, pure reality to which we can contrast the myriad of simulations. Simulations have ‘imploded’ into us – into our actual behaviour, our bodies, our buildings, our procedures, and our environment – such that our real world is regulated and produced by simulation.
False Evidence Appearing Real
The act of constructing news is given its most literal exposition in the “horror house” segment, when we see television news editor Nina (Rene Russo) literally telling her anchor to “build it!”. The news segment is ‘framed’ by Nina’s constant narration, which she dictates to the anchor over a headset.
Nightcrawler persistently reminds the viewer of how the propagandist (whether in politics, advertising, news or entertainment) fulfils his or his client’s aspirations by turning fantasies into reality. Looking at a fake backdrop of Los Angeles skyline at the television station, Lou says to Nina, “On T.V. it looks so real” to which she replies, “yes it does”.
In convincing others to believe in his illusions and false “realities”, the broadcaster is able to bring the wildest fantasies (and nightmares) to fruition. Lou says, “You know what FEAR stands for? . . . False Evidence Appearing Real”.
Director/Screenwriter Dan Gilroy’s dialogue cleverly insinuates this seeping of fiction and fantasy into a world that resembles them:
“I’m focusing on framing. A proper frame not only draws the eye into a picture but keeps it there longer, dissolving the barrier between the subject and the outside of the frame.”
“Is that blood on your shirt?”
Reporting Tragedy or Causing It?
Dateline NBC’s ‘To Catch a Predator’ program provides a vivid example of how a network blurred the line between journalism and entertainment, and between reporting tragic events and causing them. With Chris Hanson fronting the series as its moralising mouthpiece, the show was audacious in how it sought out sexual ‘predators’. The irony was that network itself acted more predatory than any potential criminal they were seeking to uncover by means of their sting operation, which was designed for the sole purpose of making full-blown criminals out of people who had merely flirted around the edges of illegal activity but, in most cases, had no intention of following through . . . at least not until they were coaxed into action by the solicitations of the network’s actors. Crime makes good television, potential crime doesn’t.
In the worst example of this ‘construct-a-criminal’ approach, the network contracted a young-looking actor to entrap small-town Texas Assistant District Attorney Bill Conradt. The network deployed the otherwise bored local police force as ‘actors’ in their programme, a role they were only too happy to assume since it gave them importance, excitement and national attention.
With the cops functioning as NBC Dateline’s de facto ‘actors’, the network and presenter Hansen decided it would do something unprecedented: since Conradt was not responding to the actor’s solicitations, it took the show to Conradt. The television crew persuaded local law enforcement to call in a SWAT team (totally excessive for the situation) and, with NBC’s cameras rolling, broke into Conradt’s home. Conradt, facing public humiliation and under the intense duress created by the situation, decided to put a gun to his own head and pulled the trigger. NBC, with all the sensitivity of a dentist’s drill, broadcast the segment during prime time. Chris Hansen expressed no remorse over the incident and claimed to sleep well at night.
Sting operations are by their very nature designed to transform potential criminals into actual ones. The irony in this is that cops, the people who set up stings, are supposed to prevent crime, not increase it or lure people into it for the manufacture of positive police statistics. There is something criminal in using (as yet) innocent citizens for the production of statistically ‘successful’ policing. If any means (even morally dubious ones) are acceptable to bring about the desired result, then the image of ‘success’ is more important than the reality – indeed it constitutes the whole “reality” of what successful policing means. On this model, policing becomes a ‘success’ by manufacturing more crime, rather than by preventing it from happening. So long as it is both manufactured and ‘caught’ by the police, it becomes evidence of successful policing.
In exactly the same way, the stringer defines a negative incident as ‘news’ in the very act of recording it for broadcast television. He (and the network) make news from what is otherwise just misfortune or accident. An accident becomes a ‘tragic incident’. Violence becomes ‘horror’ or ‘a shocking event’ once a voiceover narration interprets it as such for viewers.
In explaining the ‘Technique and Method’ by which propaganda works, Austrian-American public relations and propaganda pioneer Edward Bernays (1891 1995) says that news, by virtue of its “superior inherent interest” receives attention in the competitive marketplace where broadcasters are continually vying for public attention. The public relations [expert]must “lift startling facts from his whole subject and present them as news. He must isolate ideas and develop them into events so that they can be more readily understood and so that they may claim attention as news.” (p. 171)
Bernays, in his 1923 book Crystaillizing Public Opinion, stated that the public relations [expert’s] most valuable asset is his capacity for crystallizing the obscure tendencies of the public mind before they find expression. He must tap into instincts and emotions that already exist in order to extract the desired responses and reactions. He capitalises on existing ‘tendencies’, but he cannot create them out of thin air. His job is more akin to directing them towards, or deflecting them from, certain aims or goals. Through framing the facts in particular ways, he is able to change their significance and elicit the desired response.
In Nightcrawler, television news editor Nina sees how connections between discrete events can be woven into a cohesive tapestry that makes them more ‘newsworthy’ (i.e. sensational). She provides a narrative into which otherwise unrelated events are given meaning and a significance:
And they’ll talk about it at work. Tie it in with the carjacking last month in Glendale and the other one, the van in Palms, when was that? March. It’s a ‘carjacking crime wave’. That’s the banner. Call the victim’s family. Get aquote. Mike it. You know what to do.
Meanwhile Lou is an ambitious stringer who wants to move up the corporate ladder and into the editorial side of the business. He is acutely aware that the most sensational and most graphic content will ‘cut through’ and boost the network’s market share. “See I don’t think its any secret that I’ve single-handedly raised the unit price of your ratings book,” Lou tells Nina in a particularly brazen attempt to remind her of her dependency upon him and the salacious content he supplies.
In his 1928 book ‘Propaganda’, Bernays explained how news is as much ‘made’ as it is captured or reported:
“. . . in the selection of news the editor is usually entirely independent. In the New York Times — to take an outstanding example — [the editors]determine with complete independence what is and what is not news. . . . The fact of its accomplishment makes it news. If the public relations counsel can breathe the breath of life into an idea and make it take its place among other ideas and events, it will receive the public attention it merits.” 
‘Framing’ is central to Nightcrawler’s narrative. It is by means of his camera that Lou discovers the all-important role that selection plays in producing content for a television audience. By invading the home of a family struck by tragedy and zooming in on a family photo stuck to their fridge, Lou re-frames the otherwise bland event into “good television”. He quickly learns how the editors at the TV station construct the story to maximum effect by linking the intimate details he has recorded to the loss unfortunate individuals have suffered, thus turning anonymous ‘victims’ into relatable ‘characters’.
Unlike escapist cinema, Nightcrawler has an ‘alienating’ effect insofar as it forces us to think about the media and the entire system within which it is made, rather than just taking it for granted. As with Brecht’s epic theatre, Nightcrawler is a truly revolutionary film insofar as it provokes viewers to question their social conditions; in this case their immersion in a social landscape actively mediated by producers who are also media consumers shaped and desensitized by the stuff they watch.
 In 2005, The Lancet published a comprehensive review of the literature on media violence to date.