Friday, January 25, 2008

All the President's Men (1976) & Zodiac (2007)

A double feature I had been wanting to see since first seeing last year's Zodiac, but I finally got around to it after picking up the director's cut DVD not long ago.
I had seen All the President's Men a long time ago during my initial (pre-film school) pass through The Greatest Movies Ever Made, and I was left underwhelmed. It's a movie that assumes a certain degree of knowledge of 1970s politics (how many people today can tell you who Ed Muskie was?) and the Watergate mess and if you aren't up on those basic details, as years ago I wasn't, you're probably lost. The reason I could recognize that it's a successful movie this time around was that, even though I knew how it ended (SPOILER: they get Nixon) and even though I had seen it before, I was still thoroughly gripped. Alan Pakula's direction, the performances from Redford and Hoffman, and the subtle work from cinematographer Gordon Willis and composer David Shire all come together masterfully.

The weakness of the movie, though, is that I don't think it really has much to say beyond its presentation of the procedure of working as an investigative reporter under demanding circumstances. The only subtext underlying this movie that I can figure out is the demands and rewards of hard work, coupled with a sense of the complexity and confusing realities of the world of political journalism, in which truth is out there, waiting to be pried out of taciturn witnesses. But Pakula's other '70s thrillers (Klute and The Parallax View) both had more to say about the corruption underlying the mindset of America in this era, interrogating the values that led to Watergate and beyond. Ironically, the movie most directly about Watergate is also the one least about its underlying substance and meaning to American history.

Zodiac was obviously made as David Fincher's tribute to the Pakula thrillers of the '70s, from hiring David Shire to write the score all the way down to the placement of the title card in the lower left-hand corner of the screen; and his movie is even more thematically ambitious, about not just the string of murders that panicked the San Francisco Bay area for a decade but about their ontological relevance, and the difficulty of searching for truth even in an 'information age'. I know that all sounds insufferably pretentious, but that's what the critics were raving about last year when it was released, and it's true - up to a point. Fincher gets into the nitty-gritty of what a police investigation was like in this era and in the process, reminds us of what life was like before the internet, before cell phones, when even a medium-sized California city's police department didn't have fax machines yet.

It's no small achievement to make an entertaining movie from a string of scenes of ordinary white guys talking to each other about humdrum facts, like who lived where in 1966 and person X talking to person Y about a conversation they had with person Z in 1971, but Fincher makes it all flow and work, which is great, and the movie is funny and creepy in ways that the more staid All the President's Men never manages. In particular, we have great performances from Mark Ruffalo and Robert Downey Jr. (Jake Gyllenhaal, not so much) and excellent work from Harris Savides and Shire. The problem with Fincher's movie, though, is that it appears that one of his goals is to rattle us with a multiplicity of options as to the identity of the Zodiac killer, and in the process rattle us with an epistemological quandary (I'm sorry, still horribly pretentious) as to how certain we can ever be of anything - and then he resolves the question with a fairly unambiguous answer, with a suspect labelled pretty clearly as the guilty party.

I'm all in favor of undermining an audience's accepted beliefs, from the garish attacks of Bunuel to the more subtle tricks of Douglas Sirk all the way to modern masters of subversion like Paul Verhoeven, but that's not really what Fincher pulls off. For my money, the most entertaining movie about a radically destabilized, totally unknowable crime was Oliver Stone's JFK, who went on to make a pseudo-sequel in the form of Nixon, who fell with Watergate. And with that segue, I end my reviews.

All the President's Men: 7/10
Zodiac: 8/10


cjKennedy said...

Nice double feature. I haven't seen AtPM in years so I can't comment on it authoritatively (not that I ever can), but Parallax is still my favorite Pakula film.

One thing AtPM has that Zodiac doesn't is a certain star power. Zodiac is full of great performances from great actors, but there isn't quite that zing you get with Hoffman, Redford and even Robards and Holbrook.

I guess I'm not as certain at the end of Zodiac that they have the right guy...and even if they do, it doesn't matter because he never spends a night in jail for his crime. In this case, not even knowing the answer matters. Which is worse? Not knowing or knowing and not being able to do anything about it?

Jeff McMahon said...

Agreed, everyone in AtPM is at the top of their game. I don't think Zodiac is trying to be the same kind of crowd-pleaser, which is both David Fincher's gift and his curse.

I think that, regardless of the actual truth of the case, the end of Zodiac indicates that they have the actual killer, which I'd say is represented as a form of minor triumph. In fact I'd say that's the ultimate weakness of the movie, that it ties itself up with a little too neat of a bow.

K. Bowen said...

disagree on the certainty of the identity of the killer. I think the film shows subjectively why that was Graysmith's and Toschi's favorite suspect. But I think it provides enough information to question that assumption, i.e. that he always passed the tests, the ballistics never matched, etc.
Uncertainty about the truth does not mean that some answers are not more likely than others. I don't think that ties it up in a bow at all. In fact, I think it can be seen as a little more frustrating, in the sense that there seems like a lot of evidence, yet that last bit never ties together like it should.

Actionman said...

both of these films are masterpieces

rex said...

you should see the movie "Dick" for another take on the Nixon thing. probably the most honest...

rex said...

you should see the movie "Dick" for another take on the Nixon thing. probably the most honest...