All the Investigative Men

Rewatching Zodiac recently, I was struck by the desire to see David Fincher similarly tackle the Mothman incidents of 1966-1967. This is no swipe at Mark Pellington’s The Mothman Prophecies, which I quite like for the way it evokes the enveloping paranoia of paranormal inquiry. It does, however, impose a cinematic structure and sense of resolution on a series of bizarre incidents distinctive for their lack of either quality. Zodiac, however, stands as a masterpiece of negative capability, focusing as it does on a mystery that seems explicable but always tantalizingly out of reach.

I then happened to move onto the underrated Breach, the 2007 film about the apprehension of FBI mole Robert Hanssen. Although investigation occurs in the background, the dramatic action focuses on the relationship between Hanssen (Chris Cooper, in a brilliant performance) and the young agent assigned to get close to him by acting as his assistant.

The two movies share a stylistic touchstone: All the President’s Men, the classic recreation of the Woodward and Bernstein investigation into the Watergate break-in. Zodiac even employs its composer, David Shire. Alan J. Pakula’s brilliant direction wrings incredible suspense out of simple phone calls, in the heroes press reluctant witnesses to cough up essential scraps of information.

Throughout the film, we see Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman, as the two protagonists, use a full range of GUMSHOE-esque interpersonal investigative abilities. Like Mutant City Blues or Ashen Stars characters, who must not only figure out what’s going on but be able to prove it, they have to confirm what they know by wringing confirmations from multiple sources. We see them use Flattery, Flirting, Bureaucracy, Inspiration, Reassurance, and even a touch of Intimidation. Bullshit Detector comes out as official denials are issued. They also use social discomfort to get information out of people. By simply refusing to take no for an answer, or to do the polite thing and go away, they exert a subtle pressure on their sources, one distinct from real Intimidation. A journalism-focused GUMSHOE iteration might add this as a new interpersonal ability—perhaps called something like Journalistic Chutzpah.

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