The first time I saw All The President’s Men in high school I kept thinking, how is this a movie? Two guys fumble around Washington, talk to a bunch of people on the phone. I didn’t get it. I was mad at my English teacher for showing it to us.
Years later, I was more sensitive to the milieu of the time and place. The verisimilitude of these two journalists, unraveling this conspiracy with some phones and cracker jack investigative reporting. I liked the cool emotion exhibited from Woodward and Bernstein. I liked watching the procedure, the chase. I’m not particularly in love with the film, but I think it’s hell of a lot more interesting than Chinatown, where I really didn’t give a shit about the story at all.
Zodiac is very much similar to these films in style and tone but with a much–much more interesting screenplay.
You know the script is working when you’re still trying to find “clues” to the murderer within the movie, knowing full well in reality the case was never solved. You so badly want that moment where Graysmith comes up to Arthur Lee Allen and says, “I know it was you, motherfucker.” By Graysmith’s account something like it happened, but it was more tasteful. Graysmith walks into the Ace Hardware where Allen works, and he just stares him down. It’s an unspoken message: “I know it was you, motherfucker.”
And it’s in the movie. It’s the only moment of reconciliation we can get. But boy I’m glad it was in there.
It takes a special kind of fucked up person to go as deep into the case as Robert Graysmith did. He came out the other end without his wife, and a broken family–but he did get the book deal, which ended up being turned into a movie. He was played by Jake Gyllenhaal. It wasn’t all in vain.
Just recently, a codebreaker claims to have solved the Z-340, one of the unsolved ciphers. He was inspired to try it after watching this movie. And he in turn hopes others will try to solve it if his solution turns out to be wrong.
I don’t know what it is about people who love police procedurals like CSI, or the people that do the Sunday Times crosswords. But god love them. They seemed to be the demographic for the Zodiac, who became infamous through his ciphers with the San Francisco Chronicle. Even if they only say things like “I like killing people”, we have some bizarre fixation on unlocking codes, solving things. Whether it’s sodoku or the Z-340, our brains are wired to correct things. Find meanings, especially when they’re hidden. We all have a little bit of that inside us. The obsessive compulsion.
That’s why it’s fun to watch Graysmith comb over every detail of the case. We want him to get it right. Especially with so much on the line for him. But the time line is also eerie. Each subtitle takes us further into the future, two days later here, four years later there.
If momentum is lost by police, it’s picked right back up again by Graysmith. Someone is always carrying the torch forward, like a demented version of the opening Olympics ceremony.
I think that is what stands out structurally. In most films when you keep widening the time line the audience begins to lose the heart of the story. In Zodiac it works just the opposite. The heart of the story lies in the time it takes to tell it. We start on the minute simple details of the case and start zooming out until the bigger picture comes into focus. Characters drop the case and leave. Some are very prominent early in the story and drop off never to be seen from again.
And of course, it’s made to look effortless. The script by James Vanderbilt is extraordinary. You meet so many characters who end up holding space in your head. It never gets confusing or muddled. The dialogue crackles. You can plow through the script just reading the dialogue and still make sense of the story.
This goes down as one of the finest films of Fincher’s career. Probably one of the best films of the 00’s. And easily one of the best screenplays ever written.