I was living in San Francisco while the Zodiac was running loose … and for that matter, he may still be running loose, no matter what the author of the book this screenplay was based on may think. I remember how it all played in the newspapers, and how people not yet accustomed to this sort of serial killer reacted to it. (These days, of course, we’ve seen so many serial killers we’re almost blasé about it.) I remember when the cab driver was killed—which turned out to be the last murder that was unquestionably his. I remember reading Zodiac’s statements in the newspapers.
And that was what was special about Zodiac, I guess, because despite what thriller writers would have you believe, few of these people actually taunt the police with messages. And even fewer get away with it. Zodiac is the D.B. Cooper of serial killers. He vanished, no one was ever caught or punished. Like Jack the Ripper, who still fascinates a lot of people. (Not me.)
In the course of this movie mention is made of the fact that Zodiac wrote to say he had not been responsible for the bomb that went off at a police station on February 16, 1970, and killed an officer. That really brought me down memory lane, because I was living at 1735 Waller Street in San Francisco at the time. Half a block away was Stanyan Street, and half a block into the park from there was the tiny Golden Gate Park police sub-station. So I was a block away when that bomb went off, and I still remember the huge shock wave that rattled our windows, and all the neighbors coming out into the streets, and the wailing of sirens as hundreds of cops arrived and sealed the area off. I don’t remember now who took credit for it or if they were ever caught, but everybody thought it was some political assholes like the SDS, and the cops were very tense. Not a good night for a longhair to stay out on the street, and I didn’t.
Enough reminiscence. This movie is very well made, though I think 20 minutes could easily have been trimmed from it. It is not like a normal serial killer movie, in that it stays pretty close to the actual story, and so the central problem becomes the same one faced by the makers of The Day of the Jackal. How do you build suspense when you know the outcome? We know going in that de Gaulle will not be assassinated, and that the Zodiac will not be caught. So this is going to be a story of failure, and that’s a tough assignment.
You do it by making the process so fascinating that you are kept on edge and interested, in spite of knowing the outcome. This movie does a good job of that. It’s taut and intelligent, and it’s really not about Zodiac at all … which is good, because we really know next to nothing about him. The real subject of Zodiac is obsession. Zodiac is driven by his obsession, whatever it was, and the people around the story were driven by theirs. It drives one reporter deeper into drink, and pretty much burns out two cops. But the real maniac here is the author of the book Zodiac (and later, several others, quite sensationalistic if their titles are any indicator), one Robert Graysmith, a cartoonist, of all things, for the San Francisco Chronicle.
I’m old enough to remember the years after JFK’s assassination, and how an entire conspiracy industry grew up around it. For twenty years I followed some of them, with a level interest far from obsession, but with the uneasy feeling—shared by the vast majority of Americans—that we didn’t get the whole story. I finally concluded that we never would get it. Human knowledge is not perfectible. Study any event long enough and you will find things that don’t seem to fit in, things that might be lies, imperfect recollections, and the farther away you get from an event, the less you can ever know about it. We’re seeing it today with the 9/11 conspiracy industry. There is also a conspiracy industry surrounding the data on global warming. People get into these things and won’t let go. They preach on Internet street corners, wild-eyed, waving their hand-printed signs, flecks of spit flying from their mouths, true believers. There’s no point in arguing with them; you just become part of either the poor deluded masses, or allied to those who perpetrated the vast cover-up.
For reasons I doubt even he could explain, Graysmith slipped into this level of obsession about Zodiac. It seems to have consumed his life for twenty or more years. I guess the good thing you could say about that is that it led him into a career a lot more profitable than editorial cartoonist. Now he sells books purporting to solve crimes that have high public profiles. But it also seems to have wrecked his marriage, and made him a pest to just about everyone he ran into. Do you really want a friend who is forever grabbing you by the shirt and shouting his nitpicking theories in your face?
Often in a cop thriller I get pissed off at the wife who won’t stand by her husband when he’s trying to do the right thing. It’s such a clichéd scene, isn’t it? Darling, either you drop this or I’m taking the children and going to mother’s! But what the hero is doing is important, it’s going to save some lives. This time I was solidly on the side of the long-suffering wife. She stood it a lot longer than I would have. I kept wanting to shout, Get over it, Bob! Truth does not always prevail. Zodiac has stopped, why can’t you?
So in the end, though I can say this is a good movie, it’s really tough to actually like a movie when the protagonist is acting like an asshole for so much of it. And that’s about half the movie. Obsession can be an interesting subject—see Hitchcock’s Vertigo—and director David Fincher has made a valiant attempt, but in the end I was just tired.