Following on from her Oscar-winning war film, 'The Hurt Locker' (2008), director Kathryn Bigelow re-teamed with screenwriter Mark Boal, returned to the Middle East and took on the greatest manhunt in history with 'Zero Dark Thirty', a dramatisation of the search for Osama bin Laden. Unlike the existential musings of her last film, Bigelow offered something twisted and nerve-wracking - an impressive and intelligent film on a subject rife with potential, but so easy to get wrong.
Rather than trying to encompass the full scope of the hunt, the film focuses on Maya (Jessica Chastain), a young CIA operative who makes the hunt for bin Laden her personal crusade. Through her eyes, we see the scale of the operation and the futility of it, almost every lead resulting in a dead-end, until a seemingly innocuous piece of information brings Maya and the CIA right to the terrorist's doorstep. The focus on the journey of a central character rather than something more expansive gives 'Zero Dark Thirty' its humanity and its intense clarity, and makes for a more fulfilling experience. The narrative is divided into a number of chapters, guiding us through each stage of the hunt over the ten years it was active, and it's to Bigelow and Boal's credit that the film doesn't get caught up in the intrigue of the case and burden the film with unnecessary action set pieces. The film also moves at a cracking pace, much more so than 'The Hurt Locker', an advantage when the audience already knows where the film will end, throttling forward with devastating inevitability.
Bolstering Bigelow's expect direction and Boal's tight screenplay are a terrific ensemble of actors, led by the formidable Chastain, who is quickly asserting herself as one of the finest actors of her generation. She balances Maya with the right mix of intelligence, spunk and vulnerability, and surrounded by a sea of powerful men, asserts herself as the driving force of both the mission and the film. Jason Clarke gives a blistering performances as fierce interrogator Dan, and Jennifer Ehle continues to remind us of her considerable talent as fellow CIA operative Jessica. Kyle Chandler, Mark Strong, Stephen Dillane, Joel Edgerton and the late James Gandolfini round out a ridiculously exciting cast.
In the wake of its release, 'Zero Dark Thirty' was criticised for its depiction of torture and interrogation techniques during the early days of the war, and its lack of judgement regarding their use. However, this detachment, which pervades through the whole film, might be what makes it so affecting, and ultimately, so timeless. You won't find any pro-American acts of patriotism, no sweeping emotion in the wake of retribution. 'Zero Dark Thirty' makes no judgement or comment, rather observes the unfolding events with the clarity of a microscope and the sharpness of a scalpel. Moments that, in a lesser film, would have been milked for all their dramatic potential, are executed here without relish or embellishment. It acts as an historical document of one of the most important and controversial events of our time, and in the process, one of the most impressive films to come in the wake of the war on terrorism. Whatever reservations you may have had before, take advantage of its home video release and be enthralled, hypnotised and thrilled by this truly remarkable film.
'Zero Dark Thirty' makes no judgement or comment, rather observes the unfolding events with the clarity of a microscope and the sharpness of a scalpel.
PICTURE & SOUND
'Zero Dark Thirty' has the texture of gritty, near-documentary realism, even more so than 'The Hurt Locker', and for their Blu-ray release, Icon have chosen to stay true to that intention with an excellent 1080p 1.85:1 transfer. Clarity and detail is excellent throughout, including the final chapter, shot at night during the final assault, combining tradition photography with simulated night vision. A texture of grain covers the transfer, giving it added realism whilst making it remarkably cinematic. Sound is also an integral part of the landscape of the film, and Bigelow demonstrates just as effective an understanding of how it can be incorporated into storytelling as she did on her last film. The DTS-HD MA 5.1 track is full-bodied and forceful, especially when combined with Alexandre Desplat's chilling score.
Unfortunately, there isn't much on offer here. A commentary from Bigelow and Boal would have been great, but instead we get a collection of handsome but short featurettes. Cursory discussion is given to the development of the film and the casting of Chastain, but most attention is paid to the preparation and shooting of the assault on bin Laden. It's interesting stuff, but only represents around fifteen minutes of the film, and as such, doesn't exactly offer much insight into the film as a whole. Considering how excellent the video and audio package are, this is a tad disappointing.