Following is my contribution to the Future Classic Movies (FCM) blogathon hosted by Paula Guthat of Paula’s Cinema Club. The requirement of the blogathon is to choose a film released since 2000 that I believe will be considered a classic in 40-50 years. I chose a film that remains with me long after it’s over – no matter how many times I watch. A modern, old-fashioned film, a future classic.
Let me start by saying I absolutely love newspaper films. I don’t care if newspapers are central to the story, used as props, or newspaper headlines are used to further a plot, as is the case in so many classics. I also love newspaper montages in classic films – a-la-Capra. They are not used often now for obvious reasons, so few people read newspapers these days, which is too bad because they’re a great tool in films. Newspapers, the newspaper business, its processes – all lend themselves to great storytelling. So, although it was not planned, it’s no surprise that my choice as a Future Classic Movie is, in essence, a newspaper story. The film is Zodiac (2007), directed by David Fincher of Se7en fame. Roger Ebert, wrote in his review of Zodiac that it is the “All the President’s Men of crime films.” I agree.
Zodiac stars Jake Gyllenhaal, Mark Ruffalo, Robert Downey, Jr., Anthony Edwards and a fine cast of supporting players. All the main actors here, by the way, are great with Gyllenhaal and Ruffalo delivering some of their best work here. The story, which progresses by way of headlines and a typed reminder at the bottom of the screen showing the passage of time, is based on the investigation of the Zodiac killer, a self-coined serial murderer who killed several people in the San Francisco Bay area in the late 1960s and early 1970s. There are no spoilers ahead. The crime has never been solved.
Zodiac opens on July 4, 1969, with the Zodiac killer’s second attack, the shooting of a couple at a lover’s lane in Vallejo, California. The girl dies as a result of the attack, the young man survives. A few weeks later, a letter arrives at the San Francisco Chronicle. That correspondence is the first of many encrypted messages Zodiac sends to taunt the police. Political cartoonist, Robert Graysmith (Gyllenhaal), who enjoys solving puzzles as a hobby, is particularly intrigued by the ciphers Zodiac sends. Graysmith is not taken very seriously at the paper. But, the case brings Graysmith and crime reporter, Paul Avery (Downey, Jr.) together. Graysmith shows Avery that he has a talent for decoding the killer’s messages.
Zodiac attacks again and the taunting continues. Somewhat reluctantly, and not always out in the open, the police, reporters and the cartoonist collaborate to try to find the identity of the Zodiac killer. This is a severe simplification of a very complicated plot. This film’s story is intricate but it is told seamlessly.
The series of crimes as investigated in the film are perplexing, which is true to life as (reportedly) many experts feel the Zodiac Killer case involves the most mystifying series of unsolved crimes in modern history. The film ends with as satisfying a conclusion as is possible. A conclusion reached through the perseverance of the political cartoonist. His obsession with finding the killer leads him to doggedly pursue the clues, which drive the story. As is the case with many of my favorite films, the conclusion is of little consequence to the effectiveness of this film. The journey – what matters – is told in chilling detail and the true-to-life mystery that baffled so many becomes ours.
What David Fincher does beautifully in this film, and it is a superlative film, is tell a story of procedure, which spans many years, in a slow but deliberate way. It is a film that uses traditional editing and storytelling (so welcome). It dares to take its time and by doing so, enhances the tension. And there is tension throughout the entire film, which is no easy task given it depicts, what seems to be in real time, a span of fourteen years. All of this makes the style of this film particularly refreshing in an era that prefers choppy editing to feign or enhance action and which aim for constant, immediate, but short-lived satisfaction or enjoyment in film. Zodiac is the real deal.
This film also has an outstanding look and feel to it. Moody lighting and a style reminiscent of films made during the period of time it depicts. I don’t mean as in a “period piece,” I mean as if it actually were a film made in 1970. It should be mentioned that the majority of this film was shot digitally but because I know little of what that entails in comparison to more traditional filming techniques, I can only say that whatever method was used WORKS!
Despite this film’s large cast, we get to know the key characters quite well. This is due to the wonderfully methodical script written by James Vanderbilt, which is based on the bestselling book by Robert Graysmith, the character played by Gyllenhaal. I must also mention that one of my favorite aspects of this film is how its energy rises and falls as the true life crime did as it was investigated over time. For instance, when the film starts, during the height of the Zodiac killer’s spree in 1969, the story goes into a frenzy as investigators and newspaper personnel scramble to get the name of the killer. But as the case grew cold, so does the story in the film –purposefully. If not familiar with the story, one wonders where it will all lead to after the initial frenzy subsides. Then, it all picks up again – more anxiety, more mystery – more thrills and chills.
As far as Zodiac crossing over into the realm of the “classic,” I think it might and absolutely think it should. Any number of movies considered classics and that are beloved today, met with cold receptions from audiences when first released. Their status as classics grew over time as audiences took a closer look in the comfort of their own homes. Zodiac is not a comfort, by any means. Nor will you be comfortable while watching it no matter how expensive the recliner. But it has, aside from what’s noted above, what so many of the classics have – once you start watching, you can’t turn away. Add to that that it is, easily, one of the best thrillers released this century.
I don’t know how the Turner Classic Movie (TCM) experience will be in 40 to 50 years, when Zodiac is introduced by Robert Osborne – yes, he will still be there. But I imagine that we’ll be able to step into the film – as investigating cop or crime beat reporter – to try to solve the case ourselves from one of those perspectives. I would much rather that scenario, I have to say, than the option of having a brain chip where movies can be experiences from within or some such thing. I love thrillers. But I don’t want Zodiac, or the likes of Harry Powell for that matter, inside my head…I’m gonna go turn on all the lights now.
“I am not the Zodiac. And if I were, I certainly wouldn’t tell you.”