Sony // 2012 // 157 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Judge Clark Douglas // March 19th, 2013
The greatest manhunt in history.
"I'm going to smoke everyone involved in this op and then I'm going to kill Bin Laden."
Maya (Jessica Chastain, The Tree of Life) is a young C.I.A. officer who has fully devoted herself to a single mission: finding al-Qaeda leader Osama Bin Laden. Over the course of a decade, we watch as Maya works tirelessly to track down potential leads and persuade her superiors that she's on the right track. After years of searching, Maya finally uncovers a compound that she believes to be Bin Laden's hideout. Soon, a Navy SEAL team is tasked with raiding the hideout -- a mission that could potentially bring an end to one of history's biggest manhunts.
For a brief window in late 2012, it seemed as if Katherine Bigelow's Zero Dark Thirty was going to win just about every award under the sun. It received Best Picture prizes from one organization after another, and appeared to be on an unstoppable path to Oscar glory. Then came the controversy. Some claimed that Zero Dark Thirty endorsed the use of torture, and was a film that suggested that it's okay to put aside our country's moral standards for the sake of getting the bad guys. Others said that screenwriter Mark Boal had fallen in love with his high-profile sources and hadn't given them the critical scrutiny they deserved. A number of U.S. Senators expressed their displeasure with the film's take on how things went down, and an investigation was held to determine whether Bigelow and Boal had been given inappropriate access to classified information. As the assorted cries of outrage began piling up, the awards love began to taper off. By the time the Academy Awards arrived, the only Oscar Zero Dark Thirty took home was in the Sound Editing category (and it was a close call on that one -- the film tied with Skyfall for the prize). Ironically, the award for Best Picture went to Ben Affleck's Argo, a considerably more uplifting and less controversial film about a high-stakes secret mission.
There's no question that Zero Dark Thirty is a complicated and troubling movie, but that's exactly what it's supposed to be. It's dealing with a lot of loaded political subjects, but it avoids editorializing or pushing the audience in a particular direction. It simply lays out a detailed (if undoubtedly somewhat dramatized) portrait of how things went down over the course of a decade and allows us to come to our own conclusions. In a way, it's something of a Rorschach test: what you bring to the movie largely informs your viewing experience.
My first viewing of Zero Dark Thirty was one of the most troubling viewing experiences I've ever had. Not because of what was on the screen, but because of the way the audience responded to the material. What I felt I was seeing was a detailed examination of the high cost of this mission -- yes, it's a good thing that we finally got Bin Laden, but the price we paid to get there was unbelievably high (in many ways, it feels like a larger-scale version of the soul-crushing investigation at the core of David Fincher's masterful Zodiac). However, the rural Georgia crowd I watched the film with saw a rousing cinematic portrait of all-American ass-kicking, clapping and cheering loudly as each shot was fired during the tense compound raid sequence. Never mind the shots of wailing wives and tearful children incorporated throughout this sequence (hardly an effort to make us feel pity for the terrorists, but an important reminder that there is always a human cost in warfare of any sort); we were taking out the trash. But that's a crucial part of the film's power: it's dispassionate enough to grant us our own feelings. The film's fundamental amorality (no, it doesn't condone torture, but it certainly doesn't condemn it) is directly tied to its greatness.
Also directly tied to the film's greatness: its masterful, relentless construction. Bigelow has become an increasingly methodical filmmaker over the years, and in Zero Dark Thirty she delivers her most focused and detail-oriented effort to date (which is saying something when you consider how focused and detail-oriented The Hurt Locker was). The movie juggles an enormous cast of characters and is constantly tossing out new names, dates and locations, but Bigelow and Boal keep their eyes on the ball at all times and never permit things to become too muddy or messy (even when things are muddy and messy for the characters). Sharp editing, a quietly propulsive score from the omnipresent Alexandre Desplat, persuasive production design, involving cinematography...the movie excels on every technical level.
For the most part, the movie isn't really a performance-driven affair, but the performances are excellent nonetheless. When one thinks of versatile actors, one tends to think of chameleons like Daniel Day-Lewis or Meryl Streep -- actors who alter their appearance, voice and general demeanor dramatically to inhabit a role. Jessica Chastain is also quite versatile, but in a considerably subtler way. She makes adjustments on an interior level, looking and sounding familiar at first but always managing to seem precisely right for whatever role she's been given. In Zero Dark Thirty, she brings her distinctive gracefulness to a generally hard-edged character, and the contrast is effective. A host of fine actors fill out the supporting cast, including Jason Clarke (Lawless), Jennifer Ehle (Contagion), Kyle Chandler (Friday Night Lights), Mark Duplass (Greenberg), Harold Perrineau (Lost), Mark Strong (Body of Lies), James Gandolfini (The Sopranos), Edgar Ramirez (Carlos), Joel Edgerton (Warrior), Chris Pratt (Parks and Recreation), Stephen Dillane (Game of Thrones), and many more. All of these players devote themselves to playing their small roles with no-nonsense authenticity, an element that adds to the feeling that we're seeing things more or less as they actually were (to the degree that any historical drama recreates things as they actually were, anyway).
Zero Dark Thirty (Blu-ray) offers a terrific 1080p/1.85:1 transfer. Detail is astounding throughout, but black levels and shadow delineation are the really important elements of this disc. Most of the third act takes place in near-darkness, so a weak transfer might have made some important scenes incomprehensible. Fortunately, this disc allows the film to retain clarity at all times (even so, don't leave the lights on when you watch this one). Well done. Just as impressive is the DTS HD 5.1 Master Audio track, which excels both during the quiet scenes of office investigation and during louder sequences of gunfire and explosions. The sound design work is masterful throughout, fully immersing us in the film whether we're in Pakistan or Washington, D.C. Dialogue is clear throughout, too. The only portion of the disc that disappoints is the supplemental package, which is limited to four brief featurettes ("No Small Feat," "The Compound," "Geared Up" and "Targeting Jessica Chastain"), a DVD Copy and a Digital Copy. This film is begging for a deluxe edition loaded with commentaries, making-of documentaries and maybe even some material on the real-life individuals depicted in the film. Perhaps that's coming later, or perhaps the filmmakers wanted to say as little as possible in light of the controversy surrounding the flick. Either way, it's disappointing to have so little at the moment.
Zero Dark Thirty is arguably Bigelow's finest film to date, a masterful, troubling procedural that lingers with you long after it concludes. The Blu-ray release looks and sounds superb, though it lacks a solid supply of bonus features. Highly recommended.
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Scales of Justice
* 1.85:1 Non-Anamorphic (1080p)
* DTS HD 5.1 Master Audio (English)
* English (SDH)
Running Time: 157 Minutes
Release Year: 2012
MPAA Rating: Rated R
* DVD Copy
* Digital Copy