Wednesday, August 08, 2007

The Phone Whisperers

August 8, 2007

I rented a movie called Zodiac over the weekend, and it took me back to the 1970's. Someone in the newspaper office flashed a page of political cartoons at our hero -- there were caricatures of Richard Nixon on the page. The movie was full of scenes of people making urgent phone calls from phone booths.

And every once in a while a big clunky phone actually rang -- you remember, "Ring? Ring? Ring?" and when its receiver was picked up and listened to there there was nothing but heavy breathing coming from the other side.

Everything about this movie was pretty close to authentic. Without being maddeningly precious about it, costume and set-wise, people looked pretty much like they once did. (Now that I think about it, I didn't see any men in sideburns or bell bottoms, but going that far would be jarring today.) It's an intense little thriller about a real situation in San Francisco when serial killers were still in the shadows and even the term was not yet in general use.

There are excellent performances. I always admire Robert Downey (and of course my mind always goes to how much I hope he's really past his addiction). In this one his portrayal of an addict with a wasted life is chillingly spot-on. One scene in the newsroom when he is functioning but literally falling-down-drunk is especially well done.

Jake Gillenhahl gives an engrossing performance as the newspaper cartoonist who gets drawn into the murder trail because of his fascination with codes and puzzles, and hangs on to his detective work long after all else have shelved the whole deal. He seems to have the case solved by the end of the film, but there is no real conclusion.

Zodiac is not a chick flick. Not to say that a woman wouldn't enjoy this movie -- I was totally taken in by it -- but there are only a few female characters in it as sort of wallpaper, worrying about their men. The actresses are as good as the actors, and I would say I loved the first-date scene; but this is a movie about men doing police work, on the fringe of the old newspaper world. There is a faint smell of booze, cigarettes and sweat about it. There isn't much light to find your way around. But it captures a real situation in a real time and place and presents us with a constellation of good actors doing their jobs.

Mark Ruffalo plays the police detective who is said to have been the man the movie Bullitt -- there's one to see again! -- was based upon. Brian Cox does a wonderful turn as attorney Marvin Belli, who has the one laugh line in the movie. And the odd Charles Fleischer will scare your socks off. The film's lead suspect is well defined by an actor I never saw before, John Carroll Lynch.

All through the film I was reminded of the little technological advances that have subtly changed our everyday lives, and for some reason when the hero starts getting phone calls with heavy breathing, I remembered how prevalent those "breather" calls used to be. Why isn't anybody breathing heavy on the phone any more? Even 19 years ago, when I first moved back to Fairhope, people were still getting those calls. I got one at my old house on North Bayview. Now I have "Caller ID" which tells me at least the phone number -- or "Unknown Number, Unknown Caller," before I pick up the phone.

Think of all the advances in police work -- phone records, even DNA -- that have made this kind of movie a quaint period piece. And eliminated all those obscene phone calls.

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