Picture this film 30 years ago, assuming said real events allowed it to happen. Sylvester Stallone would have led a group of soldiers into a compound guns blazing, explosions surrounding the team until a kooky side character made a dramatic rescue. It would have certainly been about the spectacle.
This industry has matured.
Over twelve years, a fresh out of high school CIA recruit begins a desperate search for Osama bin Laden, dealing with scrutiny from on high, torture methodology, and doubt. Her thirst for information becomes an obsession, taking a mental toll as operatives are found or killed while risking leads.
Zero Dark Thirty spends two hours with Maya (Jessica Chastain), building up the pieces that pin a direct line to bin Laden’s compound. Often grueling, Zero Dark is unflinching, certainly controversial. A potential informant is water boarded, strung up by his wrists, mentally depleted, and stuffed into a box ill-fit for a Chihuahua. Those are the first 20-minutes.
The torture is potentially condoned within the narrative arc, the spilled knowledge opening a flood gate of lesser knowns on Al Qaeda’s list. Conflicting reports begin casting doubt, laying it on the shoulders of Maya who has no success in her career: bin Laden is her only case to date. Maya has only her enthusiasm and fearsome attitude to guide her, traits that never leave her vulnerable or sidelined. Asked to sit in the back of the room during a critical briefing, she stands up, shouts obscenities, and makes herself heard. This is not the type of woman to sit back and watch things unfold without her dominating input.
Chastain is superb, forced to convey both the horrors of a young upstart witnessing her first torture, and the drive as her materials begin to lock down bin Laden’s position. She is both a rookie and veteran, clamoring for (and receiving) respect, a double character that creates her own growth. Zero Dark is smartly handled and sharply focused, keeping the lens where it belongs for the needs of character. It merely seems like Maya is always centered.
Even as the Seals team pushes into the compound in a thrilling 20+ plus minute exercise in military technique, Maya sits inside a command center. Direction sweeps in to deliver a remarkably dense action scene, not lifted on the shoulders of gunfire, but raw tension. Few rounds are fired, all of them sure, giving the Seals a demanding authority and accuracy. If the torture scene that opens Zero Dark was raw, the precision of the Seals squad and their penchant for ensuring death with a spare round is equally heavy viewing material.
Everyone knows the outcome of that moon lit shoot-out, so Zero Dark swivels back into position on Maya, seated for a flight home and in tears. It is a reflective moment considering the losses suffered and the price paid for the death of one man. Call it propaganda, but clearly this is a divergent method if that is the case. No one “wins” here, or comes home to parade. People cry because of what they did. That’s haunting, especially when you consider how much we don’t know.
Shot digitally and creating a wholly natural image with few imperfections, Zero Dark Thirty is an often impeccable piece of HD visuals, whether you want them or not. Packed in definition means peering into the eyes of a tortured informant, cuts, bruises, and swelling defined in close. Sharply rendered, the piece has a windowed look, eerily clear and wholly natural. Medium shots hold to the same high standard.
Colors are sustained at natural levels for the full runtime, dead on flesh tones remaining pure, and hues untouched. Zero Dark never shifts into any specific palette or feel tweaked through an intermediate phase. It it a refreshing breath of realism.
Hints of stock footage pulled from news reports are expected for the sake of narrative realism, shifting back into the high resolution footage quickly. Black levels hold the imagery together with few inconsistencies up until the finale, and contrast is heavy. The AVC encode is out of the way until lights cause banding during the third act, a sparse complaint that hardly can be levied against the disc.
Minor instances of noise are featured along certain backgrounds, the only impediment to a perfectly real looking feature… until the Seals become involved. Black levels during the raid on the compound are flattened to replicate a sense of moonlight in addition to making the scene visible in the finished product. The style will bring out some obvious visual effects, additional banding, and generally lackluster depth. Less said about the night vision the better as well. It is nothing to hold against the disc, but worth a mention for the rather jarring shift in quality.
Most of Zero Dark Thirty is situated in offices, but it is not without audio tricks. Inside the torture room, the hollow space replicates a convincing echo with shifting dialogue that becomes dependent on the camera position. Loaded streets of Pakistan are alive with sound, and a club sweeps around to deliver atmosphere.
Before a frame is shown, a black screen is presented with panicked calls and news reports from 9/11, shifting channels as they are introduced. The mix keeps every speaker active from the outset. Peppered with action and occasional gunfire, the sound mixing works much like the video: naturally. There is little LFE pop from the shoot-outs, sticking more to the highs with terrifying authenticity. The dry sound of silencers is equally unnerving.
Zero Dark’s monster moment is a helicopter crash, whipping blades around the soundfield and hitting the ground with force. Its eventual explosion is a heavy one, and even before that point, the engines are pulled down into the subwoofer to ensure the low-end is on active duty. This is a great, bustling mix with plenty of cues to take notice of.
In 30 years or so when documents become declassified, we can revisit the extras of Zero Dark Thirty to peek at what was done right or wrong. What is actually here is numbingly cheap and often uninteresting. No Small Feat is nothing more than a promo for four minutes, and Targeting Jessica Chastain exists to sell the film’s star. The Compound is the best thing here, looking at the replication of bin Laden’s hideout and the complexities of shooting in something this real. Geared Up deals with the military side and the training.