It may seem strange to say, but we academics who study work sometimes get too caught up in the workplace itself. By that I mean that, much like the workers we study, we get so fixated on workplace events and processes that we forget to attend to the sphere of non-work. If we really want to understand the meanings that work acquires, then it behooves us to attend to the messages about work that are increasingly encoded in popular media –most notably, in film and TV. Here we can often find instances of what Paul Willis once called “penetrations,” or insights into the truth about work and inequality that debunk socially dominant myths.
As Exhibits A and B, consider two recent films that center on the struggles that workers confront in this era of neo-liberalism and new technologies. Both films derive their power at least partly from the sites they invoke, which lie at the very center of power and authority in the advanced capitalist nations. In the one case –“Nightcrawler,” starring Jake Gyllenhaal and Rene Russo— we get a vivid account of freelance cameramen trawling for lurid footage of violent crime, which they can sell to local TV stations wanting to jump start their ratings.
In the other case –“Good Kill,” starring Ethan Hawke and January Jones— the film centers on military officers assigned to work as drone operators, ordered to rain Hellfire missiles down at Afghani peasants vaguely suspected of being militants. These films seem on their face to be worlds apart. Yet in truth, both capture deeply troubling situations in which workers are compelled to produce and reproduce the very culture of violence that envelops us in our everyday lives. These films raise far reaching questions of concern to workers generally: What to do when morality and authority diverge –and how to achieve a modicum of agency and autonomy in a system designed to support neither.
“Nightcrawler,” directed by Dan Gilroy, provides an almost ethnographic account of a fascinating occupational culture whose members listen to police radio signals, waging a nightly struggle to score the kind of graphic video footage that will stoke the culture of fear and violence on which local TV news stations thrive. Gyllenhaal gives a gripping performance as Louis Bloom, a small time grifter who stumbles into this back-stage occupation, whose practitioners ooze with the very sleaze that gives the film (and their trade) its name. Bloom is penniless, but his skills at theft and bargaining enable him to buy a camcorder and police scanner. These, when combined with internet-derived knowledge of entrepreneurial strategies, enable him to launch a career as a seller of the most graphic and violent images around. His career as a freelance videographer takes off once he uses his fledgling managerial skills to hire a near-homeless man as his personal assistant, and then discovers his uncanny skill at zeroing in on –and eventually, actively shaping— crime scenes of bloodiest sort. An entrepreneur of the most vicious sort, Louis well understands that the boundary between life and the media has blurred to the vanishing point. This insight leads him to set about altering and implicitly directing violent actions, thereby generating the most satisfying footage that can be had. In this respect he forms common cause with a local TV producer, Nina Romina, played by Rene Russo. Their sexual ties are kept in the background, but suggest the erotic energy that drives Bloom’s quest for power and recognition as he ascends the food chain from precariously employed freelancer to powerful media personage. That Bloom succeeds in his competitive quest is aided by his ability to engage in the same kind of violence his camera seeks to capture, and by the fact that he is not saddled with anything resembling a conscience. Yes, it is possible to overcome precarious forms of employment, “Nightcrawler” tells us, but it helps if the word “ruthless” applies to you in spades. The film gives us a Hobbesian image of the news industry, Photoshopped with the latest wisdom from the self-help section of the bookstore.
If “Nightcrawler” tells us that No Ethical Workers Need Apply, “Good Kill” shows us what happens when they do. Directed by Andrew NIccol, “Good Kill” fastens on the nature of bombing campaigns in an age of information technology. Hawke stars as Captain Thomas Egan, a former fighter pilot now redeployed from Iraq to Las Vegas, where he works as a drone pilot presumably fighting the Taliban. Under military command, Egan dutifully metes out deadly violence against Afghani peasants, using with what looks and feels like a PlayStation joystick and console. He struggles with his new deployment, knowing that he is no longer a real pilot: sequestered in a Nevada military trailer, he risks nothing and applies no military skill at all. The term “good kill” is routinely used by co-workers, much as a sports figure would give a high five to a teammate after a score. Egan complies but is little engaged by this abstraction of military work. When in 2010, the CIA takes control of drone operations from the military –President Obama’s policies are obliquely referenced here— Egan’s moral qualms become all but intolerable. Orders to kill now seem based on little more than supposition. Egan and his fellow pilots are ordered not only to destroy village settlements, but also to fire on the responders as they rush in to help the wounded. Some of Egan’s fellow pilots are engaged by their role –one of his colleagues calls it “putting warheads on foreheads”— but this labor of death and destruction nearly costs Egan his sanity. He struggles to evade his orders, to the point of risking demotion and worse. In the end, Egan is powerless to alter the military machine that uses his skill with impunity, but not before he Egan risks everything to carry out an action that is worthy of the film’s name.
Two films, one set of important messages about work, morality, and authority. In “Good Kill, Egan is nearly crushed by the violence he metes out on another continent, but a flicker of his own humanity manages to survive. In this respect he is an outlier; his commander and fellow officers have begun a part of the military machine. In “Nightcrawlers,” there is even less humanity in sight, as the lure of power and celebrity are too enthralling for Bloom to resist. At one level, these films show us the dark side of cultural work today: jobs in which cultural workers use technology in ways that compound the evils that flourish all around us. More worrisome yet, we see how retaining one’s scruples ultimately forces one to exit the playing field (Egan’s fate). Those who have no scruples to retain (as in Bloom’s case) have all the right job qualifications to succeed. At a deeper and more hopeful level, though, the production of these films reminds us that some space does yet exist for cultural workers –the directors and cast of these films—to raise questions about the nature and demands of work in time when media competition and military conquest have reached fever pitch.