Films on a Plane – Nightcrawler as neoliberal parable

Night Crawler

You should see this film. Especially if you care about understanding noeliberalism and its consequences for those who perpetrate it and those on the receiving end.

Jake Gyllenhal is brilliant as “Lou Bloom” (the name is a joke – there is nothing fertile about this guy, he drops toxic leaves all around him). We first meet him stealing chain link to fence (sorry about that). When caught, he checks out if the guard is private or a cop. It’s the former, and he beats him up. Nothing is made of it, but this sums up Lou- he has an (un)healthy disregard for boundaries, and cool calculation of precisely what he can get away with.

Lou then stumbles into the world of freelance cameramen who prowl Los Angeles for clips of people (preferably white) who are bleeding from accident and violence. The clips can then be sold to the voracious beast that is cable news (“if it bleeds, it leads”). The rest of the movie charts his rise. Bloom is a Horatio Alger for the 21st century, having imbibed all the homilies and bromides about reinvention, self-marketing and flexibility that are neoliberalism’s mantras and dogmas. He is a relentless and clever manipulator and shape-shifter, akin to the liquid metal Terminator in Terminator 2. Here though, there is no vat of molten metal to dissolve him. He probes weaknesses, leverages strengths and knows how to defend himself from the state when necessary, how and when to use it to his own advantage. He is of course the very embodiment of neoliberalism.

While skirting self-parody near its climax, the film is definitely up there with other great films about the role of the media and image in constructing reality (I am thinking Network, LA Confidential and Series 7: The Contenders).

Los Angeles has rarely looked so bleak, so alienating and alienated. The breathless media clips are pitch perfect, and Rene Russo brilliant as the news editor who doesn’t realise until it is too late what she is dealing with.

Also in the “identity” business is a German techno-thriller called “Who Am I – No System is Safe”. It is competent, entertaining and not worth thinking about too deeply (unlike Nightcrawler!). It twists and turns but is ultimately “The Usual Suspects” meets “The Matrix” via “The Edukators” (A 2004 German film about the ‘activists’ who… re-arrange people’s future.)

Such a pity to see a director who was as good in his day (Heat, Collateral) as Michael Mann delivering dross that looks like it has been shot on my video camera. Mann has always done steely competent men being steely and competent, with criminality and stylised gunplay as demonstrators. When it worked, it was exhilarating. This starts well enough – with a nuclear reactor being hacked and sabotaged, Chinese military intelligence wrangles, and the hacker-in-jail trope. But it soon becomes whack-a-cliche, with the squared jawed American and his tiny Chinese love interest, absurd gunfights with no apparent consequences in terms of paperwork (there is ALWAYS paperwork). There are signs of re-writes on the fly, and that irritating thing where because someone is good at skill x) (computer hacking) they suddenly are also good at skill y) (shooting people).

Behind it all of course is the head henchman and the Dr Evil character. The actors do well enough, but the script is alternately flabby and portentous, the plot preposterous. It tries to be Jason Bourne does the Matrix, but ends up more Mr Bean does Johnny Mnemonic. I fast forwarded chunks of its 2 hours and 13 minutes, and don’t think I missed anything.

Films I fast forwarded/abandonded

“I Kissed a Girl” – A gay French guy ‘converted’ by hot Swedish babe just before his wedding. Hilarity ensues, at least in a parallel universe where this film wasn’t  quite so obvious. Engaging performances can’t save something trite and shallow.

Men’s refuge (or some such)- German comedy about three men hanging out, each with their Own Secrets. Managed 20 minutes.

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