The Need To Know

By  · Published on March 3rd, 2017

Honoring the heroism of obsession in David Fincher’s ‘Zodiac.’

Ten years after the release of David Fincher’s Zodiac, our nostalgia for the righteous power of the press has only increased. In this era of Alternative Facts, #FakeNews, and daily Presidential Twitter assaults upon the New York Times, our need to believe in the adage that “the pen is mightier than the sword” feels as essential to our being as food and water. Ron Burgundy may have ruined it all with the birth of the 24-hour news cycle, and the permanent distraction of this darn internet has certainly buried our reliance on paperboy deliveries with a swamp of clickholes and porno hubs. Today we find our outrage in 142 characters or less while we wait in line at the Taco Bell drive-thru, or the resulting time spent on the crapper. We are on a constant lookout for spin, and Fox Mulder’s “Trust No One” mantra has replaced our concept for conversation.

Once upon a time, our greatest heroes were journalists. When he wasn’t swooping kitties out of trees or toppling mechanical giants from the city skyline, even Superman idolized the profession by donning the guise of mild mannered reporter, Clark Kent. As the red scare was infecting our nation with panic and paranoia, in stepped Edward R. Murrow to call out Senator Joseph McCarthy’s witch-hunt for what it was. Walter Cronkite’s report from Vietnam was a cold splash of reality for the American TV dinner audience that pulled the veil of patriotic pride away from an unwinnable conquest. Then came Watergate, Deep Throat, Bob Woodward, and Carl Bernstein.

Having built his bones on the kinetic flourish of films like Se7en and Fight Club, when I initially heard that David Fincher would be tackling the true crime horror of the Zodiac serial killer I was expecting something a little nastier, a film that delighted in the paperback pulp of the crime scene. What we got instead was hero worship for a bygone age of journalism capable of toppling corruption, and exposing the tyranny of humanity. Fincher had already wallowed in the deadly sins of violence; his Zodiac would exchange the shock of revulsion for the thrill of investigation. Here he would lionize the men that gave it all to discover the truth. Here was his All The President’s Men.

Fincher wears his love affair for the Alan J. Paluka classic on his sleeve. He captures the July 4th 1969 shooting of Darlene Ferrin and Mike Mageau with the same casual meticulousness of the Watergate break-in opener of All The President’s Men. Inside the morning newsroom, he fetishizes the tools of the trade with long loving inserts of typewriter face, front page camera clicks, and coffee that’s as delicious as hell. Fincher bumps his frequent collaborator Howard Shore for Paluka’s composer, David Shire, and the result is an incredibly earnest score that only allows itself to venture into gloomy stylization when source music is at play.

As a (task)master of detail and never-ending takes, Fincher chose only to depict the Zodiac attacks in which there were living witnesses to offer factual observations. Hollywood being Hollywood, and movies being movies, there should be no delusion of the liberties being taken by this adaptation of Robert Graysmith’s book, but Fincher was determined to treat this moment of American horror with the same manner of scrupulous diligence that Paluka offered Watergate. When he could, he shot on the real-life locations, and when he couldn’t he recreated them. He helicoptered in trees to the Lake Berryessa location after decades of natural erosion spoiled authenticity, and when filming restrictions cost him access to the Washington and Cherry street corner murder site, Fincher greenscreened San Francisco on the back alleys of Los Angeles. He painted every corpse with digital blood, slapped a fat suit onto Dermot Mulroney when his fit frame appeared too fictional, and in post applied more hair to Jake Gyllenhaal’s too-pretty knuckles. Zodiac is a film of epic reverence for the history it both exploits and exalts.

That veneration is intoxicating, and as the unsolved mystery only deepens over the decades, the investigators involved appear all the more heroic as their obsession results in divorce, drug abuse, and alienation. You, me, most people would let the story die. Family comes first, job security comes second, and the identity of an impossible monster could easily be regulated to “somebody else’s problem.”

Jake Gyllenhaal, as the cartoonist/eagle scout/library enthusiast Robert Graysmith, is that mild mannered hero minus the spandex underwear. A curiosity for puzzles and an adulation for the boys club reigning Robert Downey Jr. propels him down an all-consuming quest for truth. He answers the taunts of a publicity possessed Zodiac killer, and never bends to exhaustion. While montages transition the audience from rock folk to disco funk, and a digital time lapse construction of the Transamerican Pyramid marks the passing of years, Gyllenhaal’s Graysmith never drops the manhunt even when the killings cease, and the media discovers new horrific distractions.

Is there nobility in obsession? When does fixation transform into zealotry, when does zealotry convert into glorious pursuit? Our society seriously loves an underdog story, we’ve sold world wars on such a notion, but we may take too much pride in being the scrappy mongrel in the junkyard fight. We’re always on the hunt for our Goliath if for no other reason than to maintain our mythic narrative. How can we feel anything other than pity when Robert Graysmith stands in front of his ex-wife, and proclaims, “I need to know who he is. I need to stand there, look him in the eye. I need to know it’s him.” He has sacrificed love and family for this mission. Can you be both utterly pathetic and gallant at the same time?

That need to know degrades Robert Downey Jr.’s Paul Avery from a casual coke spoon abuser to a raging catastrophe of a human being (is there any lower rung on the social ladder than boat house proprietor?). Mark Ruffalo’s real-deal Inspector Toschi cannot withstand that need, and a fear of that endless abyss inspires him to hang up his holster for a content life by his wife’s bedside. However, 14 years after that initial Zodiac letter, it’s Graysmtih’s inability to choose between his puzzle and his home life that plants him in that ACE Hardware store, and allows him to lay eyes on Arthur Leigh Allen. While he may have scarified a happy life around the dinner table, it’s his obsession that graduates him into the pantheon of romantic quest figures.

As more and more reporters are booted from the White House, we can expect a bombardment of socially righteous heroes with ink dripping from their fingers. While we sit at home and appreciate the good life, others beyond our doors are suffering, dying, and being forgotten. Robert Graysmith’s sacrifice for truth is not enviable, probably foolish, and while it will also fill airport bookshops with gaudy yellow paperbacks, it’s a grim reminder that we need individuals to fight for our answers. David Fincher’s idolatry for that era of Woodward and Bernstein is absolutely understandable and painfully absent from our current pop culture landscape. We need Clark Kent more than we need Superman.

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Brad Gullickson is a Weekly Columnist for Film School Rejects and Senior Curator for One Perfect Shot. When not rambling about movies here, he's rambling about comics as the co-host of Comic Book Couples Counseling. Hunt him down on Twitter: @MouthDork. (He/Him)