Most recognize the “dolly zoom” — also known as the “zolly” shot — from Alfred Hitchcock’s “Vertigo” (1958). This camera effect creates an aesthetic that works to unsettle the viewer, distorting the background objects around the subject without changing the scale of the subject itself. Here’s the world-famous example of this cinematic device:
Although an extremely quick use of this practical camera technique, this example of the zolly shot replicates the visual experience of vertigo, causing the viewer to practically feel the pit of his/her stomach drop to the floor. Thus, at the affective level of film mechanics, the dolly zoom not only allows the viewer to experience the disturbing physicality of looking down from a great height, but it also achieves a similar experience at an emotional level — no heights required.
With his exceptional control over filmic space, Spike Lee allows the zolly effect to affect the viewer in three similar, yet emotionally distinct sequences. The first of these moments occurs during a conversation between Madeline White (Jodie Foster) and Dalton Russell (Clive Owen). As the leader of the bank robbery begins his story about an American who profited off of the war crimes of the Holocaust, Lee cuts to a shot of Arthur Case (Christopher Plummer) at his desk. While he stares blankly into the camera, the zolly causes the background objects to fall away as the image of Arthur seems to loom larger and larger on screen. With this camera effect in place, Lee visually establishes the true villain of the film: one that may not literally swell with his evil past within the diegetic consciousness of the film, but rather embodies his menace through the camera lens itself and thus through the eyes of the viewer.
(Although I could not find a link to the zolly of Arthur Case, you can find the moment at 1:10:37 of the film)
After Detective Frazier (Denzel Washington) witness the supposed execution of a hostage, Lee performs another zolly effect, this time keeping the subject static without changing the scale of the background objects. Here, the fps (frames-per-second) of Frazier’s approach towards the dollying camera slows down relative to the background, creating a visual distortion that causes a temporal fissure between the subject and the rest of the frame. By keeping the proportions of the frame intact while altering the frames of the sequence, Lee creates an entirely distinct zolly effect, allowing Frazier’s sporadic movement amidst his background to reflect a fracture in his otherwise resolute morality as the consequences of his actions begin to set in. Within this brief sequence, the movement of the camera combined with the variance of the frame-rate allows the viewer to key into the building tension of this internal dilemma, even before Frazier slams his fist into the bank door as he confronts Russell in the next shot.
During the final sequence of the film, Dalton Russell speaks directly to the viewer about why and how he pulled off the perfect bank robbery. With a black back-drop, Russell looks intently into the eye of the camera as he urges the viewer to pay strict attention to what he is saying. As we continue to focus on his words, the back-drop slowly begins to change, revealing the stone walls of the bank’s storage room with a very subtle zolly effect. Here, the camera effect seems to push Russell backwards into the wall as the back-drop continues to brighten. With this visual propulsion, Lee communicates the true intentions of this “criminal” by literally forcing him into the light despite the outward wrongness of his crimes.
By framing these three characters with three unique versions of the zolly effect, Lee seems to be simultaneously linking and distinguishing between their identities within the film’s theme of public opinion and misconception. Although not nearly as politically visceral as Vikram’s questioning scene or the other moments of police harassment due to physical appearance, each of these characters have a scandal attached to their name that has caused a split between the deeper reality and a surface-level fiction. Thus, Lee seems to be utilizing the dolly zoom to visualize the experience of contending with the overwhelming power of surface-level assumptions, creating three visually unsettling moments that allow the audience to consider the deeper motives/inclinations of all three characters.