“You never hope for someone to die… but it makes a good story.” That’s Howard, a guy who spends his life filming the unfilmable – and then selling it for money. He’s a stringer, the word we’ve invented for the class of people who scurry about at night to capture nasty accidents, violent crimes, gruesome deaths and natural disasters on camera. If you haven’t heard of the term, don’t worry: this is a career that could only exist in 2017.
The profession may be familiar to many, though, thanks to the 2016 film Nightcrawler, which saw Jake Gyllenhaal play a stringer rapidly climbing to the bottom of the ladder to profit from the grime below. Very much Nightcrawler the series, it’s perhaps no surprise that Netflix spotted the awards contender and commissioned a documentary counterpart – the phenomenon is a fascinating, albeit depressing, collision between the sensationalised nature of our modern news media and a desperation to make money in a society where many are struggling to make ends meet.
Shot in the Dark (a pun in appropriately poor taste) immerses us in that world, looking at the extremes to which people go so that they can record the most newsworthy incidents – whether that’s a water main exploding, a fire or something more fatal. Seeing them hang around awaiting potential altercations with the police is unsettling viewing, while the speed at which they head to hit-and-runs can be sickening. They style themselves as photo-journalists, providing a valuable service to the news networks – although the media organisations that they serve are really no better.
There’s a disappointing lack of scrutiny and discussion, as Shot in the Dark chooses to spend less time ruminating about the ethical considerations and more time peering over the shoulder of the stringers. If that makes for a sadly shallow experience, though, it also gives Shot in the Dark its strongest asset: a rush of adrenaline.
Choosing not to focus on just one stringer, we instead follow several of them, each one competing to get the scoop first. There’s Howard Raishbrook, who runs “RMG News” with his brother, Scott Lane, who founded LOUDLABS, and Zak Holman, the young protege of Scott who went on to form his own company and is now Scott’s fierce rival. The documentary’s attempts at human interest aren’t always successful, as it charts the disputes between the three outfits, but it gives us an insight into how they think: Scott is a fan of packaging multiple videos together to guarantee network deals, while Howard ironically worries about that cheapening their work.
What’s more successful, though, is the series’ presentation, which is unashamedly geared to tap into the thrill these men feel: their locations are marked, video game-like, on a map, as each coloured blip moves closer to a particular incident, and pulsating music accompanies their frantic dash – climaxing in a scoreboard that tallies up the resulting news coverage the morning after. When it involves them hurrying to capture the crucial passing shot in a car chase, it’s a cynically effective ploy, turning the whole thing into a visceral burst of on-the-clock action. Add in some stunning nighttime cinematography and you have a ruthlessly entertaining series, even if your stomach churns while you watch.
There are occasional moments of reflection that linger, including Howard’s brother rescuing someone from a burning vehicle – prompting a crisis over the work that they do and a withdrawal from the stringing scene. More focus on that story would have made for a better, probing programme, but Shot in the Dark is content to remain provocative in its immediate thrills. Howard notes, amid talking about how he values life more now that he’s a father, that he only realises the danger of his work once a situation is over – and that shoot-first, ask-questions-later tactic defines this whole documentary. That detachment, though, is tellingly indicative of the current media climate, both for viewers and broadcasters, as people click, watch and share sensational headlines in a worldwide race to the bottom. Shot in the Dark refuses to call judgement on that trend, but if you enter Shot in the Dark with that in mind, this is an unnerving insight into the dubious standards of the modern world that makes it easy to see how worryingly addictive such behaviour can be. Binge away – but bring your own moral outrage.
Shot in the Dark is available on Netflix UK, as part of an £8.99 monthly subscription.