Release Date(s)2012 (March 19, 2013)
Studio(s)Annapurna/Columbia Pictures (Sony)
- Film/Program Grade: A
- Video Grade: A
- Audio Grade: A
- Extras Grade: D
By any estimation, the challenge of producing a film about the hunt for Osama bin Laden without politicizing or sensationalizing the events (or simply creating the usual docudrama cheese) is enormous. Several recent filmmakers have tried and failed – witness Seal Team Six, Killing bin Laden, Targeting bin Laden, The Last Days of Osama bin Laden, etc. Add to this the complications of producing an entirely dramatized narrative for the big screen and finding a cast worthy of the challenge, and you have a project that could easily have gone bad in multiple ways. So the simple fact that Kathryn Bigelow’s Zero Dark Thirty succeeds to the impressive extent it does would almost have made it a worthy Best Picture nominee alone. But it’s the achievement of screenwriter Mark Boal, not to mention the raw but restrained performance of actress Jessica Chastain, that sets this film apart from the rest of its lot.
What really drives Zero Dark Thirty is the film’s methodical pacing and narrative approach as a straight-forward procedural of “black ops” CIA intelligence work. Boal, a former journalist, put his investigative stills to work in extensively researching the events that led to bin Laden’s discovery. Over a period of months and years, he gradually developed the trust of many of those directly involved in the real events (under the condition that their identities would not be compromised), from CIA analysts to Delta operators, and used these interviews to build an accurate (thought certainly greatly simplified for dramatic purposes) picture of the hunt. Boal even spoke with the real female CIA agent depicted in the film (“Maya” as played by Chastain).
The film opens in the aftermath of September 11th (signified by the sound of 911 emergency calls from that day) and depicts the extensive and painstaking effort to uncover bin Laden’s whereabouts, from the early, so-called “enhanced” interrogations to later breakthroughs, discoveries and electronic signal intercepts. All of these gradually lead Maya (obviously a pseudonym and likely a dramatic amalgam of multiple real individuals) to the conclusion that bin Laden is hiding in a fortress-like compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan just yards from their military equivalent of West Point. But the best evidence is still sketchy and circumstantial, and convincing her superiors proves extremely difficult. Ultimately, a daring nighttime special operations raid is launched as a risky gamble, based on essentially a 50/50 shot that bin Laden is actually there. The raid is shown with the same restrained, methodical pacing as the rest of the film and when the infamous moment finally arrives, it’s subtle, quick and largely left to the imagination of the viewer. Never does this film sensationalize or flag wave, and its “just the facts” approach is a great deal of the reason why it’s so effective. Presidents Bush and Obama are barely seen, only in TV media footage playing in the background of scenes. In the end, the only real emotions we experience are the physical and emotional strain the effort places on everyone involved in the hunt. We last see Maya in a state of shock – the single-minded goal she’s sacrificed 12 long and difficult years of her life working towards has been achieved. We’re left with a simple question: What now?
One of the things I found most interesting about this film, is the way so many politicians (and others in the media) tried to make it political after the fact. There were claims that the “enhanced” interrogation was sensationalized, that it was shown in a “pro-torture” way, that special access was given to the filmmakers to make the White House look good, etc. Personally, I think that’s mostly hype and hot air. I’ve read many of the books written to date by those involved and have watched videos of discussion panels in which several of the actual CIA officers involved described their work. “Enhanced” interrogation was apparently never used Jack Bauer-style to gain needed information. Rather questions were asked that the CIA already knew the answers to as a way to tell when the most hardcore detainees were being truthful or lying. Multiple experts on the matter have said that while some useful information was gained in this way, the “enhanced” techniques were no more or less effective than other more standard interrogation techniques. Public debate about whether they should have been used at all is certainly fair and a natural part of a healthy democratic process, but I’m making no judgments about the subject one way or another in this review. It’s simply my opinion that the film also isn’t making a judgment on the matter. Like it or not, “enhanced” interrogation happened and I believe the film simply depicts the process non-gratuitously, with relative fairness and impartially. Your mileage may vary.
Sony’s Blu-ray features an excellent 1080p video presentation of the film. The film’s look and color palate is subdued by design, but colors are always accurate. Crisp, refined detail abounds in nearly every frame. This is a film in which much of the action occurs in the dark, so it’s pleasing indeed that black levels are deep and true, with rich shadows and yet still plenty of detail to be seen – especially critical in the special ops raid at the end. The disc’s English DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 mix is equally splendid. It’s subtle, nuanced and highly immersive and yet when the rubber meets the road, it delivers with thunderous intensity. Dialogue and directional imaging is natural and clear, the score is perfectly staged and there’s outstanding low end when needed. For a film of this type you can hardly ask for a better A/V presentation.
Extras on the Blu-ray are slight, limited to four relatively short behind-the scenes featurettes. No Small Feat (3:51) offers scant background on how the film came to be. The Compound (9:25) is the most detailed and interesting piece on the disc, showing how the production recreated bin Laden’s compound in exacting detail, from satellite imagery and press photos of the interior taken post-raid, as well as the stealth helicopters used in the raid (the latter essentially an educated guess). Geared Up (7:03) looks at the process by which the actors playing Seal Team Six operators were trained for authenticity – it’s also interesting, if too short. And Targeting Jessica Chastain (5:09) is your generic EPK-style “fluff” piece about the actor playing the main character – how important she thought the role was, etc. DVD and UltraViolet viewing options are also included. I would have really liked an audio commentary with Boal and Bigelow, and maybe a featurette on Boal’s research process, but the latter is probably not appropriate given the security issues involved. Maybe that’s true of the commentary too – there’s just too much chance of inappropriate information being disclosed unintentionally. Still, Boal, Chastain and Bigelow have all appeared on Charlie Rose to discuss this film in detail, so why not at least include those interviews? Bottom line… the extras are disappointing. [Those wanting to read more about Boal’s work may find this Rolling Stone piece interesting. The Charlie Rose interviews are also available to view online on his website.]
Ultimately, if Zero Dark Thirty deserved its Oscar nomination, it’s also not the kind of film that deserves or needs to be awarded Best Picture – the nomination alone seems an appropriate honor in this case. It’s certainly not the kind of film that wins an Oscar for Best Direction, and I’m actually not even that surprised that Kathryn Bigelow wasn’t nominated. There’s little cinematic style or flash here. Bigelow’s work in this film almost feels invisible, and while I grant that that alone is a deceptively simple and significant achievement, there were other directors this past year more deserving. In any case, Zero Dark Thirty isn’t the kind of film you celebrate, but it’s one well worth experiencing. It’s one of the better big screen looks at the dark, tense and secret world of nuts and bolts intelligence work you’ll ever see. It doesn’t have the style of… say… the recent Tinker Taylor Soldier Spy, but if you liked that film you’ll find much to enjoy in Zero Dark Thirty too. It is, in my opinion, exactly the film it needed to be.
- Bill Hunt