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Zero Dark Thirty

(2012) ** 1/2 R
157 min. Columbia Pictures. Director: Kathryn Bigelow. Cast: Jessica Chastain, Joel Edgerton, Chris Pratt, Jason Clarke, Mark Strong, Kyle Chandler, Jennifer Ehle, Harold Perrineau Jr, Edgar Ramirez, James Gandolfini, Mark Duplass, John Barrowman, Stephen Dillane, Frank Grillo, Mark Valley.


By most cinematic measures, Zero Dark Thirty is one of the best-made films of 2012. It also probably shouldn't exist. An encore presentation by the team of director Kathryn Bigelow and screenwriter Mark Boal—who collected Oscars for 2008's The Hurt LockerZero Dark Thirty recounts the CIA's hunt for Osama bin Laden, the man who claimed responsibility for the 9/11 terrorist attack (at the outset, the film announces it is "based on first-hand accounts of actual events"). It's no spoiler to say that the film begins with actual audio from September 11, 2001 and ends with bin Laden being shot in the head by U.S. Navy SEALs in May of 2011.

By following a fiercely determined CIA officer (Jessica Chastain's "Maya"), Zero Dark Thirty creates an identification in her agony of defeat and thrill of victory along the way, building a rooting interest while otherwise eschewing character development in favor of detail-oriented procedural. But the devil is in the details. While I have no doubt that Mark Boal's docudramatic screenplay hews closely to his journalistic research, one might well say, "Consider the sources." And the calendar: even more so than with Paul Greengrass' United 93, it's fair to suggest that the Hollywood treatment of such politically delicate—and, in this case, covert—recent history comes "too soon," and lacking in the crucial historical perspective that comes with time.

Certainly, Chastain turns in a potent performance (Bigelow saves the most emotionally complex moment for the film's resolution, as Chastain wordlessly processes the closure of ten driven years), and the sprawling ensemble cast supports her well, especially Jason Clarke as an "enhanced interrogation technique" expert and Kyle Chandler as CIA Islamabad Station Chief Joseph Bradley. The film's tech specs are second to none, with crack work from cinematographer Grieg Fraser and editors William Goldenberg and Dylan Tichenor. In particular, the lengthy raid sequence constitutes bravura edge-of-the-seat filmmaking that makes The Hurt Locker look like a mere warm-up.

But to what end? What purpose does Zero Dark Thirty serve? Does it provide any useful insight, anything more than its unsurprising office politics and its investigative and tactical details? Should this story be entertainment? And if it isn't entertainment, what is it? These are questions Bigelow and Boal are content to sidestep as they claim, "Just the facts," except where they don't: torture. The op-ed arguments over the film's depiction of torture as a horrible necessity in finding bin Laden (who knows? Damn few, though officials like Dianne Feinstein not so convincingly insist waterboarding provided no direct intel on bin Laden's whereabouts) simply demonstrate the problem of prematurely turning the story into Hollywood legend, sadly the way most citizens will view and remember these events.

Instead of dealing with the inherently political dimensions of its narrative, the filmmakers have disingenuously insisted upon the film's apoliticism in its embrace of procedural narrative. No one and nothing in the film ever questions the goal of the mission, as expressed by Maya to Seal Team Six: "Bin Laden is there, and you're going to kill him for me." While it's no doubt accurate that capture was never considered, the film stands as an implicit endorsement of political assassination by celebrating the admirable qualities (determination and bravery, shoe and boot leather, and military skill) with which it is carried out.

A complex film would seek a more balanced picture of these events and their broader implications, depict bin Laden instead of pointedly doing the opposite, examine the political capital bin Laden's execution signified for the sitting President, perhaps have an insider make a crack about rule of law. By turning this significant historical event into a willfully noncontemplative thriller, Zero Dark Thirty risks resuscitating the musical motto of Team America: World Police: "America! Fuck Yeah!"

[This review first appeared in Palo Alto Weekly.]

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Aspect ratios: 1.85:1

Number of discs: 2

Audio: DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1

Street date: 3/19/2013

Distributor: Sony Pictures Home Entertainment

Sony sends home Zero Dark Thirty in a 2-disc Blu-ray + DVD + UltraViolet Digital Copy combo pack with outstanding hi-def picture and sound. The sharp digital-to-digital transfer preserves the filmmakers' intent with true color and contrast. The transfer never betrays any hint of being challenged by the source: compression artifacts are nowhere to be found, and the image is, of course, spotlessly clean and rock-solid. Crucially, black level and shadow detail are excellent, no detail unduly obscured in the night-raid sequence, or indeed anywhere in the film. The lossless DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 mix wows in the action sequences with potent effects and discrete separation, but also impresses in quieter scenes with appropriate, scene-setting ambience keeping the rear channels lively. Dialogue always stays perfectly above it all, and the effects and music always sound robust, full, and delicately calibrated for a track that gives an impression of crystal clarity and high fidelity.

Bonus features are slim, with behind-the-scenes footage and cast-and-crew talking heads spread across four featurettes amounting to under twenty-six minutes. "No Small Feat" (3:51, HD) is a brief, generalized overview of the ideas behind the film and their execution. "The Compound" (9:25, HD) focuses on the Abbottabad compound, as recreated in a movie set, and the shooting of the film's climax. "Geared Up" (7:03, HD) looks at the R&D behind the film's depiction of Navy SEALs. "Targeting Jessica Chastain" (5:19, HD) profiles the Oscar-nominated star and her approach to her character.

Review gear:
Panasonic Viera TC-P55VT30 55" Plasma 1080p 3D HDTV
Oppo BDP-93 Universal Network 3D Blu-ray Disc Player
Denon AVR2112CI Integrated Network A/V Surround Receiver
Pioneer SP-BS41-LR Bookshelf Speaker (2)
Pioneer SP-C21 Center Speaker
Pioneer SW-8 Subwoofer

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