Journalism on Film |6| How The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo Champions Old-School Journalism

HeadStuff is currently publishing a series of weekly articles on how the journalistic process is depicted on film – the intense research involved in the practice, the time it takes to articulate a story, and the false intimacies that come with the interview process. In this entry, Richard Drumm discusses how David Fincher’s The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo champions old-school journalistic research. Previous entries in the series include pieces on The End of the Tour, CapoteShattered GlassFear and Loathing in Las Vegas, and True Story.

This may on the surface seem like an odd text to examine for this series but one of the more memorable quirks of this film – and the original book it’s based on – is that despite ultimately building to a schlocky, pulpy serial killer story, it’s wrapped up in an awful lot of quite scathing social commentary about contemporary Sweden. The film is also viewed through the lens of journalistic rather than detective practices. Our protagonist, Blomkvist (Craig), is a thinly veiled self-insert fantasy for author Stieg Larsson; both are journalists who run their own magazines, but Blomkvist just happens to be a well-known one who’s irresistible to women. The relevant aspect however is that Larsson infuses and builds the story around the slow, methodical and “boring” realities of research and investigation.

Ultimately it’s a film preoccupied with appearances and, as a consequence, visuals. Blomkvist’s investigation into Harriet’s disappearance is being performed under the guise of a family memoir to disguise it from the other Vanger’s. Martin, eventually revealed to be the killer, coerces under the visage of politeness and lives in a house that’s basically a glass box — an intentionally arrogant boast about having nothing to hide. Blomkvist, after his initial embarrassment in court, is singularly worried about how he’s reflecting on his magazine’s image and keen to give any impression which might restore confidence to them as a brand even if it involves him leaving – and of course such conversations happen within the largely glass walls of their offices. More than this though, it’s interesting how Lisbeth and Blomkvist’s investigative methods are reflected by the cinematography and mise-en-scene.

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo - HeadStuff.org
Rooney Mara and Daniel Craig in ‘The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo.’ Source

The actual story makes it clear that Lisbeth’s methods are more effective but are clinically dispassionate and illegal. She’s initially queried on why her report on Blomkvist lacks her opinion on him and she coldly spits back that she’s not paid to give an opinion. Similarly, Blomkvist himself mentions how uninteresting her report is and how he likes to entertain the reader (even facts must appear as entertainment). Aesthetically though, the film makes clear whose methods are “right”. Blomkvist is shown primarily outdoors or at the very least in his well-lit cabin while doing his research and quite hands-on investigations. He travels, he examines locations first-hand and takes notes with pen and paper. He speaks with multiple living sources and engages with and gains key clues from hand-written diaries. Lisbeth meanwhile is photographed almost exclusively in darkness – to say nothing of her visual appearance. Her methods – illegal hacking and surveillance – are performed primarily at night for obvious reasons but it doesn’t stop there. We are rarely shown her during the day in the initial half of the film. Rather, she is indoors, in dimly lit rooms or underground, and almost always active at night, exclusively on her computer. She’s not a journalist; she’s a morally dubious information mercenary. Yet once she joins forces with Blomkvist, suddenly she’s biking all over Sweden in the sunlight.

The visual change is quite startling but makes sense given the film’s preoccupation with ‘good’, ‘honest’ journalism. She’s permitted to enter the light once she embraces the methods of good – or at the very least those which aren’t illegal or don’t involve her computer superpowers and instead rely on traditional/old fashioned practices. Despite this the film is unambiguous on who is more effective. While Blomkvist stumbles around getting shot at and eventually captured, the only time someone gets the better of her – the harrowing rape by her social worker – her vengeance is swift, efficient, calculated and devastatingly brutal. Even as she rescues Blomkvist, there’s no calling out or pleading with the killer, she simply walks up behind him and near removes his jaw with a swing of a golf club. And in both these instances of vengeance, her surveillance equipment is key. The film acknowledges her usefulness but never let’s her be more than a dangerous, mildly other-ed force of nature that just happens to be on the side of good. But the film isn’t all violent tableaus underscored by Enya.

The most vital early clue which gets the investigation moving is the discovery of the bible verses in Harriet’s diary. In the original novel and this adaptation, it is Blomkvist’s devoutly religious daughter who happens to visit him one day on her way to bible camp – a level of contrivance so awe-inspiring you just know the character of the daughter was invented purely for this plot point – who alerts him to the fact that they are bible verses and not phone numbers as the previous investigator believed. However, the original language adaptation removes this. As Lisbeth never stopped monitoring his digital activity even after her initial surveillance job was finished, she cops that they’re bible verses and her ego gets the better of her, prompting her to anonymously message him the solution. Now, while I personally find the latter the far more organic and satisfying example of storytelling, the random chance involved in the daughter version feels truer to life: this kind of investigative journalism relies on chance to a point. It also grounds the breakthrough in a) physical evidence – the written note his daughter sees, and b) a connection made by someone who isn’t (pre-entering the light) Lisbeth. Every major breakthrough comes from someone spotting a tiny detail in a piece of hard evidence, not a computer.

The almost fetishistic obsession with evidence, particular paper records, is evident by the fact that there’s (maybe) a combined seven minutes that feature the fight and car chase with the antagonist while there’s a sizable chunk of running time built around montages of research and evidence sifting. Even weirder is that they’re very compelling. Fincher’s usual methodical and slow style is used here to demonstrate a version of the reality of investigation. Scene after scene is dedicated to showing us Blomkvist and Lisbeth pouring over documents: highlighting, making notes, arranging evidence links and following easy to miss trails within collections of literally hundreds of old photos. Reznor and Ross’ superb score — which should have got the Oscar — adds to this immensely. The repetitive and droning pieces neatly paralleling the seemingly endless nature of the work at hand; performing the same activity and going over the same evidence but always building toward an eventual crescendo or breakthrough as the melody gets subtly more complex and intense.

Ultimately it’s not a film with any kind of grand or insightful thesis into journalistic endeavours. Outside of some slightly quaint views on the morality and right practices of journalism, there’s nothing too deep. What it does do though is take the nuts and bolts of what the practice involves and, successfully one might add, sex it the hell up. Any film which features as, basically a climactic action scene, a character ploughing through decades of corporate files in a dusty old archive in an attempt to find a serial killer, as the score builds and builds — and for that sequence to actually work and be dramatically effective — deserves applause.

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