On Balloon Boy, Billy Wilder, and Where The Wild Things Are


At first, it seemed like the weirdest sort of synchronicity: After a long back-lot battle, Spike Jonze's disturbing Where the Wild Things Are was premiering — and a real wild thing was sailing off for what seemed like "in and out of weeks" on every cable-news network. This wild creature's name? Falcon. Either by foolish bravery or accident, he'd embarked on a terrifying, magical journey.

Eggers and Jonze had swapped out the disappearing bedroom wall of Sendak's story to make Max's journey more realistic and "dangerous," and, well, nothing was more dangerous than this. Like Max, this flying Falcon even had a public record of wild-thing misbehavior on reality TV's Wife Swap. Then Falcon vomited on TV — twice — after saying he'd done it all "for the show." Now it seems more like father Richard Heene is the monster — and the whole story sounds less and less like a real-life Where the Wild Things Are, and more like Billy Wilder's coal-black media satire Ace in the Hole.

In the film, Kirk Douglas plays the ferociously misanthropic, alcoholic Chuck Tatum, a sulfurous newsman who knows that "bad news sells best." When the cynic hears a mineshaft has collapsed and that some poor guy is stuck, he treats him like buried treasure. Instead of helping the poor guy out, Tatum contrives to keep him down in the hole for six days, while he spins the story into a full-blown media circus and tries to land a promotion. But Tatum isn't alone. The bigger the story gets, the harder it is to debunk. Once so many people are complicit (an election-year sheriff, a wife, all those hungry journalists), everyone becomes invested in keeping this story alive, even if the guy dies. "I can do big news, small news, and if there's no news," says Tatum, "I'll go out and bite a dog." Only, in our new 24-hour, reality-TV-and-Twitter-addled news cycle, we all need so many more men to bite so many more dogs. So maybe there are hungry monsters at work here. To paraphrase the Wild Things movie, we love these little Heenes (and Gosselins, and so on) so much, we could just eat them all up.