WHIRLYBIRD

Los Angeles is enormous. The city’s home to 3 million alone, but bring in the whole county, and you have 10 million living across 4,700 square miles. To the north, Kern County, another million or so and 8,000 square miles of terrain. Ventura County lies to the west of Los Angeles—2,000 square miles and 800,000 people. San Bernardino to the east: 20,000 square miles and 2 million souls, and Orange County to the south: 950 square miles and 3 million more. Add them together, and you get the amorphous mass many refer to as “L.A.” This is the L.A. news stations are responsible for covering, and traversing it is a monumental task for the reporters who must get there and get there first. It’s no surprise then that Bob and Marika Tur took to the skies. How else could they do it? 

Young and married, the Turs eked out a living as a couple of news stringers at a time when the 24-hour news cycle was learning to walk. They were freelancers, competing with legions of other freelancers, armed with microphones and video cameras, breaking news in a city and time when breaking news was the only news. And as Matt Yoka shows in his documentary about the Turs, Whirlybird, it was a hell of a time to be alive.

Composed mostly of archival footage shot by Bob and Marika (archived and maintained by Marika), Whirlybird is the story of L.A. through the marriage of the Turs—a productive marriage, yes, but far from a happy one. Bob was the son of an abusive father and fell easily into the cycle of verbal abuse. Marika bore the brunt of Bob’s assaults, as did their co-pilot, Lawrence Welk III. But as daughter Katy and son James hint at in the interviews, there was enough of Bob’s anger to go around.

What held them together was the work. Luck will only take you so far; it helps to be obsessive. And Bob was obsessive about being first, zipping across the skies in their helicopter to capture a car chase, a hostage situation, gun violence, you name it. On April 29, 1992, he was hovering over the corner of Florence and Normandy when the looting started, and the violence took hold. And he was there on June 17, 1994, tracking O.J. Simpson’s white Bronco as Simpson led police on a car chase from Orange County to Brentwood. For 20 minutes, 80 million people tuned in to see Simpson’s low-speed chase. It was Bob’s voice they heard: The Vin Scully of the skies.

That in itself makes Whirlybird entertaining, but what gives Yoka’s documentary an extra dimension is this: In the past decade, Bob transitioned from male to female, so it’s Zoey who Yoka interviews in the contemporary footage. Zoey has some insight into Bob’s behavior, but it comes with caveats. Marika is sympathetic to her former husband’s transition—the two divorced not long after they retired—but I get the feeling that she’s not letting Zoey off the hook for Bob’s behavior. Katy provides an interesting angle as she is now in the news business and sees the beast from the inside. Suddenly, portions of her childhood now make sense.

Whirlybird is the story of L.A., which is the story of Bob and Marika, but more Bob, if we’re honest. At one point in the documentary, Yoka pulls footage of the Turs vacationing on a Hawaiian beach with Bob talking about how much Los Angeles has changed since he was a kid. You can hear the weight of that realization in his voice, which makes sense, considering all he’s seen. Bob and Marika’s job was to document the world around them, changes and all. It’s only after the fact that the transitions became clear.

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Whirlybird (2020)
Directed by Matt Yoka
Produced by Diane Becker, Matt Yoka
Starring: Zoey Tur, Marika Gerrard, Katy Tur, James Tur, Lawrence Welk III
Greenwich Entertainment, Not rated, Running time 103 minutes, Opens Aug. 6, 2021