Is there anything more thrilling than the police procedural movie? I'm sure that, based on opening weekend totals and word of mouth, there are plenty of people saying, "um yes, there is when we're expecting another kick-ass David Fincher movie along the lines of Seven!"
Well "Zodiac" is certainly not another "Seven" as much as the film's producers would LOVE to sell it as (especially since that 1995 film has been the only Fincher film to gross over $100 million). But "Zodiac" is something more altogether- its smart, well paced, well acted and certainly well researched. It also falls right into the genre of film that I love- one I affectionately call the 'journalistic procedural' genre- the grand daddy of them all being 1976's "All the President's Men". And while in recent times the emphasis has shifted from a journalistic stance to illuminate the same type of dogged determinism inherent in police work, the main point is still the same- show the audience all the frustrations, the dead ends, the paperwork and especially the elation when all that hard work pays off. "Zodiac" does that masterfully.
Using the zodiac killings that took place during the Bay area in the late 60's, Fincher's film focuses on the cops (a wonderful Mark Ruffalo, who did this type of thing so intelligently also in Michael Mann's "Collateral" and a rejuvenated Anthony Edwards) and the reporters (Robery Downey Jr, need I say more! and Jake Gylenhaall) who spend their careers and their sanity searching for the one clue that may break the case wide open. Characters float in and out of the twenty year time span as the case grows and wanes, time is reflected patiently in clothes and style and, perhaps, the biggest injustice that the film exposes is the lack of law enforcement cooperation that existed between four separate California counties during the killings. The damnation of "Zodiac" lies not on one person, but the bureaucratic breakdown of our judicial system.
Filling the screen with the hunt of the prey based solely on intelligence and research has been done to great lengths in the past, and "Zodiac" deserves to join that list. As previously mentioned with Alan J. Pakula's film, there is also Bertrand Tavernier's "L.627" from 1992- a film whose entire 2 hour and 30 minute running time concerns itself with mundane daily details of a French police unit as they fight the war against drugs and prostitution. As exciting as it sounds, Tavernier elicits great sympathy out of his main character, and I feel for him when he has to sit and type out a long report (often filled in real time as he interrogates his handcuffed criminal) and especially during the film's muted final moment as he drives away in the back of police van, looking out onto the street he's trying to make safe. Also from France this year (why are the French so good at nailing the vagaries of professional life?) was Xavier Beauvois' "La Petit Lieutenant". While this film saddled the police procedural around a somewhat strong framework of plot, it still conveyed the maddening doldrums of city police work. Here at home, the most stunning and recent example lies in David Simon's first season of his HBO drama "The Wire". Just watch that show over its first 13 episodes and I dare anyone not to be intrigued and wholly caught up in its portrayal of a police task force slowly ripping its way into the organized drug trade of inner city Baltimore. That shows breadth and scope, alternating between the street level drug dealers and carrying itself up to the corridors of City Hall, fascinated me more than any movie in the last few years.
Now back to this little movie called "Zodiac". Clocking in at almost 3 hours (and using about 5% of its screen time dedicated to the killings themselves), it can be frustrating at times and lends itself to information overload- I'm still trying to piece together how one section about a murder in Riverside and a piece of wood found with writings on it fits with the rest of the film. But the greatness of Fincher's film lies in its resolve to not be another "Seven". "Zodiac" is a refreshing attempt to reconstruct a process of thinking through a crime rather than exploiting the crime itself. The ultimate example of this is during an interrogation scene with a character who the film (based on Graysmith's book) pretty much vilifies as the true killer- the tension and observation during that scene strikes more points than any action sequence could ever amass. It's all about body language and intuition between the cops and their subject. You can feel their wits literally doing battle on the screen. And that's a battle I'd watch any day.
So, I'm curious to other procedural films that have sparked everyone's interest. List away in the comments section!