Essential Series – Zero Dark Thirty

Zero Dark Thirty

Director: Kathryn Bigelow

Screenplay: Mark Boal

Minutes: 157

Year: 2012

Score: 9.13

Release: Sony Pictures 4k

There are many readers who think my rating system is too hardcore for a form of entertainment and with that I wholeheartedly agree. It is designed so no film will ever get a perfect 10, designed with purpose. Zero Dark Thirty is one of my Top 5 movies, both technically and emotionally. I love this movie, it is technically perfect, and it scores only a 9.

From Order here

For a decade, an elite team of intelligence and military operatives, working in secret across the globe, devoted themselves to a single goal: to find and eliminate Osama bin Laden. ZERO DARK THIRTY reunites the Oscar-winning team of director-producer Kathryn Bigelow and writer-producer Mark Boal (2009, Best Picture, THE HURT LOCKER) for the story of history’s greatest manhunt for the world’s most dangerous man.

There are two issues that I could find with the film, and this is actively looking for issues. On the 4k release there one visual effects shot that does not appear completely natural. The second is a minor continuity issue with Jason Clarke’s hair between scenes. The first is an issue that every film, with CGI shots, suffers and the second is me trying to nitpick a movie. You may complain that it is a little long, but it does not feel like it, every beat is right.

I regret that I didn’t see this movie in the theater. I skipped it for no good reason. Luckily my home sound setup does a very good job simulating Dolby Atmos because the sound in this movie really kicks and I don’t feel like I am missing anything between a theatrical experience and my home viewings.

The sound design is one thing that I cannot get enough of with this film. Having watched the movie a half dozen times, I know what to expect and I know when to expect it, but the the shocks in the movie and the audio stingers make my heart burst every single time. With an intent of avoiding ruining these shocks I will quickly reference the scene with the double-decker bus in London. I remember when this happened and I remember watching aftermath footage. That scene in Zero Dark Thirty should not surprise me at all and that is part of the mastery in this film.

It ticks many genre boxes with military action, espionage, and political intrigue but it doesn’t really fit into any one of them. With this being a true story the red tape of bureaucracy keeps the movie from falling off the rails to the point that it plays out as overtly realistic. It is obviously a Hollywood movie and the dialog is undoubtedly more punched-up than what was actually said, but it isn’t over the top. Because of this I doubt that the film will work as well for everyone. There isn’t really any Mission Impossible style spy action. The explosions and gunshots are all surgically placed so there isn’t any Mad Max bonkers violence. It just works.

Thinking back I cannot remember a single throw-away cast member. There are some who lead me to believe that there may be some deleted scenes somewhere but anyone with lines did not phone in their performances. I will stop dancing around it now, anyone who reads this site knows that I am an unabashed fan of Jessica Chastain. Zero Dark Thirty introduced me to Jessica and I cannot imagine being able to pay that back. Her role as CIA handler Maya is the linchpin of the entire film, after her introductory scene she is the puppet-master for the entire plot.

Her performance is an outcome of a perfectly crafted screenplay by Mark Boal and direction by Kathryn Bigelow. The two had a strong track record coming off of The Hurt Locker but they gave Chastain the breathing room needed to captivate my attention. Bigelow, with editor William Goldenberg (who was nominated for an Oscar for the film), employed a classic French (and later slow cinema) technique of giving most scenes a few extra seconds on either side to jar the audience and amp up the importance of each moment.

Something that may elevate the importance of the film to me is that it did not hold back during the torture scenes. Torture is abhorrent and should forever been a black mark on American history, but it was a prime method used at the time for intelligence and that leaks into the character of CIA chief George who references, in a late scene, that he cannot get the proof needed because he had lost the ability to forcibly ask.

The film could have easily downplayed the torture but they forced the audience into the chambers, close enough to almost smell the stink of the scene. Watching these clips play out helps me to understand why there are people around the world who don’t think we, American’s, are all good people. This is an ongoing theme with the Bigelow/Boal films, they aim to teach their viewers, something from which most big budget films try to shy away.

I would like to eventually see a special edition of this film. The existing releases are good but they all share the same lean special features. If I had to pick one release it would be the Korean Plain Archive release which is an all around gorgeous package. It is sold out but you can drool over it here.

For this essay I watched the recent Sony 4k release and my original assumption that only CGI heavy film would really benefit from a big 4k release may be faulty. It looks incredible. I don’t remember the sound being much better between the 4k and the earlier release but I don’t doubt that it was improved. Since the sound is such an important feature of the film they never held back too much before.

I was recently asked why this film at the top of my list. Especially when compared with all of the other available great war movies. My opinion is summed up in the final scene, which I won’t spoil but the raw, emotional, yet subtle, performance by Chastain is one of the finest punctuations on any drama film in my memory. Sure, the entire film is well above average, but that last moment is pure perfection.

Special Features:

  • No Small Feat
  • The Compound
  • Geared Up
  • Targeting Jessica Chastain

Director: 10 – Cinematography: 10 – Edit: 7 – Parity: 10 – Main performance: 10 – Else performance: 8 – Score: 9 – Sound: 10 – Story: 10 – Script: 9 – Effects: 7 – Design: 9 – Costumes: 8 – Keeps interest: 10 – Lasting: 10