They're running at you on every screen this season, shouting hoarsely, blinding you with their glowing eyes, hemming you in and then ripping you to shreds. No, they're not zombies – they're the media hordes, and according to a half-dozen current and upcoming films, they're soulless, ruthless and perpetually starved for more. They seem attractive at first, helpful or seductive or adulatory. But prolonged exposure is inevitably toxic, and the speed at which your life disintegrates because of them is breakneck – and still accelerating.
I read Gillian Flynn's novel Gone Girl, and in my recollection the media is an interesting backdrop to the story. But David Fincher's film (from Flynn's screenplay), which has grossed $136-million (U.S.) in its five weeks of release, brings the media to the foreground. The skill with which the media manipulates the virulence of public opinion, which turns Nick (Ben Affleck) from a worried husband into an almost-certain murderer after his wife Amy (Rosamund Pike) goes missing, is breathtaking. The public's certitude solidifies faster than quick-drying cement, based on nothing more than TV pundits whipping up minutiae: an inappropriate grin at a press conference; a selfie with the wrong heat-seeking sociopath, who's hoping to grab a slice of the "glamour" for herself.
Everyone in the story is engaged with the media in some way – Amy's parents use it for appeals; the TV talking heads use it to further their careers; the cops use it to push Nick. Even Amy uses it to solve a problem. Throughout, the media is depicted as a pack of dogs, first rolling over to have its belly scratched, then wheeling on the scratchers and tearing out their throats.
The director Michael Winterbottom focuses on much the same thing in The Face of an Angel, which premiered at September's Toronto International Film Festival. It's a barely fictionalized account of how the media covered (and by covering, changed the story of) the murder of British student Meredith Kercher in Perugia in November, 2007.
"Journalists are aware that when they write about a murder trial, they write about what they think sells … the most sensational details," Winterbottom has said. "The central idea – someone's lost a loved one – gets lost."
In Beyond the Lights, which opens next Friday, the media begin as fawning over Noni (Gugu Mbatha-Raw, who played the title character in Belle), a singer on the rise. They lovingly document every stiletto she straps on, every dress she squeezes into (or out of). But with each click of the camera or the mouse, Noni is giving away pieces of herself, and pretty soon there's nothing left. Naturally, then, the media begin feasting on her pain.
The current films Nightcrawler, Kill the Messenger and Rosewater turn the focus onto members of the media themselves, each one of whom becomes an ouroboros, the snake that eats its own tail. In Nightcrawler, Louis (Jake Gyllenhaal) is plenty unstable at the beginning of the movie. But the minute he picks up a video camera and starts trawling wee-hours L.A., looking for tragedy to record, we see two things: He's found the thing he was meant to do, and it makes him a monster. The TV news producer (Rene Russo) to whom he sells his footage is another kind of monster, one who'll erase any moral line for ratings. The "better" they do their jobs, the more twisted they become.
Kill the Messenger tells the true story of newspaper reporter Gary Webb, who exposed the CIA's role in arming Nicaraguan rebels and importing cocaine. The film posits that when the U.S. government applied pressure, other newspapers, and eventually Webb's own, turned on him; they killed the story by destroying his credibility, in order to save themselves.
On the other hand, the real-life journalist in talk-show host Jon Stewart's directorial debut, Rosewater – his name is Maziar Bahari, and he's played by Gael Garcia Bernal – is portrayed as a hero. But slipped into the film is this detail: Bahari was thrown into an Iranian prison and brutally interrogated after he appeared on Stewart's show. His mere participation in Western media nearly cost him his life.
A trio of other projects all explore, to varying degrees, how a desire to be famous quickly becomes a need to stay famous. In the fiction film Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtues of Ignorance), Michael Keaton plays a washed-up, comic-book-movie star trying to claw back up to respectability by staging a Broadway play (the echoes of Keaton's real past as Batman are utterly intentional). The documentary Actress, which opens in the United States on Friday, explores the life of Brandy Burre, who had a role on The Wire, stepped away from the spotlight, and now wants back in. And the HBO series The Comeback, which premieres on Sunday, furthers the story of Valerie Cherish (Lisa Kudrow), who is almost Promethean in her tragedy: She would gladly eat her own liver every day if it would get her a little attention. Proximity to cameras, fans, Twitter followers – it's like smoking crack: apparently pleasurable, undeniably dangerous, addictive unto self-destruction.
Even a film that seems as far removed from reality as Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 1, which is due out Nov. 21, is in fact about this same subject. A propaganda filmmaker (Natalie Dormer) spins Katniss (Jennifer Lawrence) into a media darling in order to foment revolution.
All of these projects, to varying degrees, attempt to make sense of the profound changes that have happened in less than two decades, as old media, with its prescribed rules – a few authoritative voices, delivering checked facts, careful to use words like "alleged" – has given over to new media, where citizen journalists and the Twitterverse throw out a story the moment they see it; the 24-hour news cycle has become the 140-character news cycle; and every person is an ever-moving target. (I don't have to point out, do I, that this past week the example of Jian Ghomeshi has shown us how astonishingly quickly a story can change.)
Of course, the media has been and remains a powerful and necessary force for good. But its dangers, and the toxicity that proximity to it can cause, make for better drama. (The use of the word "viral" to describe stories is remarkably apt.) It's a constantly mutating, ever-expanding drama, and now everyone – anyone with a Facebook, Twitter or Instagram account – is part of it.
These films are trying to grab at little pieces of the story as best they can. But things are evolving so quickly, it's like trying to grab one no-see-um from a swarm around your head. At this moment in time, we can no more hold onto an idea of what the media is, and what it should do, than we can hold onto any of the tiny fragments of glass that make up a kaleidoscope. How can we possibly know what we're looking at, when every second it's being shaken and turned, unfocusing and refocusing into something new?