I am quite caught-up in exploring the strange and murky psychological space that lies somewhere between the real-life Brian Williams story and some of the actions of the main character Louis Bloom in the fictional film Nightcrawler.
Having just experienced these two cultural moments together, I can’t help but make the obvious connection and ask some serious questions. When did reality cease to be enough for Williams? When did being the embedded witness for the rest of us become banal?
Most people I know have been taught, or learned instinctively, the mechanisms for navigating the harsh realities of every-day life. We each find ways to accept the intensity level of what is, especially when it is as dramatic as being in the helicopter behind the one that was fired on. I was left to wonder when, and why, this shifted for Williams, which clearly led me to connect some of the dots to the film Nightcrawler. With no immediate answers at hand I turned to a film that deals with some of these questions and offers very disturbing answers – but the film is fiction.
What I can say for sure is that we were given much more information about Louis Bloom’s character in Nightcrawler and while I can’t agree with his actions, the motives of career advancement and the need for companionship were offered as explicit reasons. The film opens with Bloom committing a crime and when confronted, the encounter ends with him committing a violent act. There is no doubt that we are meeting a man with no moral compass. Nonetheless we are allowed to spend enough time with Bloom to observe his character’s outward evolution from a seemingly nerdy guy to a Machiavellian manipulator. Williams, however, begins at the other end of the social spectrum. He lives somewhere at the top of our cultural ladder but unfortunately, we have no information to begin to understand what transpired with his “character” either as private person or as the newscaster in this surreal real-life narrative.
Reporters are cultural narrators in the midst of documentary-like, real-life, non-fiction events and the relaying of these stories is a vital part of global communications. Daily news is history in the making, current events being written in snippets and images as they transpire. These every-day events often involve loss of life, can change the direction of the stock market, and affect manufacturing among many other things. The reporters who “report” these stories are generally not the story. This being said, it is also the case that reporters can now have celebrity status much like our movies stars, sports figures and a myriad of socialites and entertainers. In this context I guess we can imagine Brian Williams playing reporter Brian Williams on TV, although in a very different way than Jake Gyllenhaal played Louis Bloom in Nightcrawler.
The murky atmosphere these two moments created in tandem required some more exploration. This took me to a play I saw long ago called Lettice and Lovage. I had the privilege of seeing legendary stage and screen actor Maggie Smith as the tour-guide of a mansion. During the course of her duties, she would “enhance” the location’s history for it’s visitors. The character was both charming and funny and I found myself thinking of it as the third point of a triangle of contemplation because it represented a moment where embellishment caused no harm. I do not have the same confidence about the Brian Williams situation and can safely say that much harm was done as the fictional world of Nightcrawler unfolded. I found the imdb description of the film’s main character an eerie possible answer to the Williams riddle – why? – “he blurs the line between observer and participant to become the star of his own story.”
So Williams has been suspended for six months and we are all left to figure how much “fact” was in each of his stories. We must now grapple with his public apology and claims of “mistaken memory” while we remain completely confused about what really happened. Memory is indeed “faulty” as studies show but not all the reports were dependent on memory.
Yes, Maggie Smith’s tour guide character enhanced her stories and we laughed, but that was about a tour of a building, not a tour of our complex culture as it unfolds in front of us daily. All I can come away from this with, is the strong belief that the news is dramatic enough these days – and need not, no, should not be “enhanced” for any reason.