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Zero Dark Thirty(2012)
A chronicle of the decade-long hunt for al-Qaeda terrorist leader Osama bin Laden after the 9/11 attacks, and his death at the hands of the Navy SEAL Team 6 in May, 2011.
For more about Zero Dark Thirty and the Zero Dark Thirty Blu-ray release, see Zero Dark Thirty Blu-ray Review published by Martin Liebman on March 8, 2013 where this Blu-ray release scored 4.0 out of 5.
Starring: Jessica Chastain, Joel Edgerton, Chris Pratt, Mark Strong, Scott Adkins, Harold Perrineau
Director: Kathryn Bigelow
» See full cast & crew
Zero Dark Thirty Blu-ray Review
The most controversial film of 2012 earns reference video and audio transfers.
Reviewed by Martin Liebman, March 8, 2013
Zero Dark Thirty begins with a blurb that states the film has been built around "first hand accounts of actual events." And that's what has the movie squarely in the political arena's critical crosshairs. Director Katherine Bigelow's film, the followup to her Oscar-winning The Hurt Locker, is the story of a decade-long manhunt for Usama Bin Laden, a search that began immediately after hijacked passenger aircraft crashed into the World Trace Center towers, the Pentagon, and an empty Western Pennsylvania field (years earlier, really, but earnestly in the public eye only after 9/11). And as is apt to happen with any film that bluntly, or purportedly bluntly, recreates a critical moment in history -- be it The Passion of the Christ or Saving Private Ryan -- questions of purpose, authenticity, and agenda arose around Zero Dark Thirty with even the mere announcement of the project. At the forefront of the debate was the filmmakers' alleged access to classified materials and, later, the timing of its release scheduled just prior to the November 2012 Presidential elections. The former remains in question and the latter eventually evolved into a non-issue when Sony pushed the premiere date back to December 2012 and the wide release date into January 2013 (the "UBL raid movie before the election" gap was filled, however, by the almost equally controversial SEAL Team Six that aired on cable television literally hours before polls opened). But critics weren't finished. As Zero Dark Thirty opened to rave reviews and Oscar buzz, the film came under fire for its graphic depiction of torture and its reliance on torture as a device to advance the plot towards the unearthing of the information that would lead to the raid on the bin Laden compound. But no matter the politics, the authenticity and the purpose of the film's detailed intelligence maneuvers, or the film's more graphic moments, Zero Dark Thirty proves itself a steady, focused, intellectually and artistically superior cinema experience that trades in wartime gun play for a more dramatically intensive and deeply filling movie that's really about human obsession more so than politics, history, and/or current events.
Maya (Jessica Chastain) is a CIA operative recruited out of high school for her unflinching dedication to tracking down the world's most wanted terrorist, Usama bin Laden. She's participating in her first interrogation alongside her colleague Dan (Jason Clarke), a hardened operative well-versed in the ways of torture and information extraction. Their current subject is proving difficult to break. Ammar (Reda Kateb) is water boarded, poorly fed and hydrated, subjected to loud Heavy Metal music, stuffed inside a wooden box, and stripped before Maya. It takes some time, but he finally divulges a piece of intelligence that captures Maya's attention. He drops a name: Abu Ahmed al-Kuwaiti, a man reportedly serving as a courier between high value persons of interest and none other than bin Laden himself. The lead never seems to go anywhere -- the courier is even once presumed dead -- but Maya refuses to give up on it, frustrating the Islamabad CIA Station Chief, Joseph Bradley (Kyle Chandler). But the further she digs, the more she believes the courier to be the key to tracking down the prize she's sought since September 11, 2001.
Kathryn Bigelow offsets the horrors -- and attempts to fend off controversies -- of the torture elements that figure so prominently into the film's first act with a gut-wrenching reminder of the terrors of September 11 in a blackened prologue that replays audio recordings from that day, and prominently featured is a woman speaking her final words to a 911 operator while surrounded by flames within one of the towers. It's the film's most harrowing moment and also its most important; that day is the driving force behind the entire plot, and even as the water boarding and other torture techniques are utilized by characters in the film, that phone call hangs over the entire process and settles into the audience's gut, not to cheer the characters on or to accept the torture outright but to at least provide a foundation for why it's happening in the greater scope of the decade-long search for UBL. Yet whether that phone call -- and the many others like it -- justifies the torture isn't the real issue here. In context it would seem the controversy over the torture's inclusion in the film is nothing more than a manufactured one for scoring points with the base on both sides of the isle. Support it or not, terror suspects with key information were tortured in the process of tracking down bin Laden -- this isn't fantasy or even pure fiction, historical fiction maybe but certainly not grossly altered if leaks and released documents are to be believed -- and the film makes it clear that the torture certainly doesn't sit well with its protagonist, even as forcefully singleminded and obsessed as she may be in tracking down the world's then-most wanted man. Leaving the torture of terror suspects out of the film, or significantly downplaying that angle, would be like ignoring the bloody island-hopping battles and the promise of a devastating assault on mainland Japans as key reasons for dropping atomic weapons to end World War II in the pacific theatre; agree with the decision or not it's historical fact and was backed by a justifiable position of saving more lives than the bombs ultimately took. Certainly, though, it's not universally agreed upon as either the right or wrong position, but it is one that's justifiable in context. The same applies here, and again, "justifiable" can and should be debated.
That notion of saving lives through destroying another permeates the entire film and the debate surrounding it. There's an "end justifies the means" conflict that runs through the film, and Bigelow and Screenwriter Mark Boal are careful to show both sides of that coin throughout. Torture does not stop several of the real-life terror attacks shown in the film. Highlighted is the Khobar Towers attack which Dan and Maya tell their terror suspect was thwarted, that the suspect unknowingly surrendered key information while under severe duress. They do so not to justify torture but rather to further break the suspect into divulging more information. It's an important moment in the film that demonstrates the potential futility of torture and instead the possible validity of misdirection and information gathering through alternate means (though still in a context of torture) in one case while heading towards the moment when the name of the courier is first revealed and, ultimately, when Usama Bin Laden is shot dead at the end of the film, an act celebrated by thousands on the night it was announced, through impromptu gatherings of thousands in cities around the United States and praised by pundits and personalities all over the airways and the Internet. Do those -- should those -- celebrations of the end also signify a celebration of the means, or can one celebrate the end but deplore the means? Even in Zero Dark Thirty the answer is never clear. Maya is so singularly focused on her task yet so obviously troubled by the interrogations that it's difficult to read her, at times. Of course, this is the same character who states she would rather drop a bomb on the Abbottabad compound -- to destroy everything in it -- rather than send in the SEALs ("the canaries," she calls them), a move which, ultimately, minimized the casualties inside the compound and saved the civilians' lives. The entire movie is a double-edged sword that's both very blunt but at the same time very surgical in how it wields its ideas and unfolds its story. It's a fascinating dichotomy that, support none, some, or all of the actions in the film, one cannot deny the dramatic impact of the story and the skill with which it is told.
Indeed, perhaps the most cinematically gripping piece of Zero Dark Thirty is its ability to so captivate its audience despite the foreknowledge of the outcome, and not just the outcome but some of the broader plot pieces necessary to reaching that climax, from the role of the courier in tracking down the target to the helicopter crash at the compound. In Zero Dark Thirty, it's witnessing the chess pieces position on the board that makes the movie so intense, from nearly blind attack in hopes of catching a break (the torture) to the final strategic placement leading to the checkmate, or the kill, a move -- all the moves, really -- the other side has no idea is even coming. This is a "how" movie -- its about how the operation came to fruition -- but it's also a "wow" movie in that it makes "how" something dramatically remarkable even considering the absence of broad suspense. It's in the details where the film finds its stride, in the authenticity about how well it goes about its business. Perhaps that's from where the criticisms stem. Zero Dark Thirty plays with so much genuine flair that audiences will feel like they're in the torture rooms, the meeting rooms, and on the raid with the SEALs. The picture makes procedure fascinating and the behind-the-scenes spy material enthralling. The picture is largely dramatic in flavor and eschews standard Hollywood violence in favor of a far more thoughtful story and realistic portrayal of military maneuvers at the end. The compound raid is less about gunfire and more about subtle movement. It's not a running gun battle but rather a slow buildup of breaching, positioning, and methodical room-by-room and floor-by-floor searching that's occasionally interrupted by very light and infrequent gunfire, a few squeezes of the trigger to put down an enemy and even less in terms of resistance from the compound's inhabitants. The very slow-devloping nature of the action actually serves to enhance the tension of the sequence, again even with the outcome already written in stone. This is tremendous filmmaking that, even under the haze of controversy, is very clear in its superiority against most other pictures of its kind.
Lastly, the on-camera performances are nearly as impressive as the off-camera work that went into making the movie feel as authentic as possible. While not every acting performance comes across as absolutely seamless, there's certainly an energy and authenticity to every part, all of the characters feeling very much inhabited and influenced by a lifetime's worth of dedication to their profession, be it the search for bin Laden, the interrogation of persons of interest, or the execution of precision military maneuvers. Most all of the performances are something above mere acting; Bigelow gets the very best from her cast, in large part due to the seriousness of the story, the dramatically intense tone, and the grittiness of the subject matter. Jason Clarke delivers the film's best performance as a hardened interrogator but also, as the film develops, a person with a heart and soul after all and another piece of the puzzle that counters the notion that the film unequivocally subscribes to the idea of torture as not even a necessary evil but something that should be done with little thought to the greater ethical and even, in some ways, spiritual implications. Jessica Chastain shows a solid range in the film but sometimes seems to force out some of the broader emotions. She does well in shaping her character's straightforward determination to capture the target but it sometimes feels as if more could have been done to more fully explore the inner dilemma that's often hinted but never fully brought to light.
Zero Dark Thirty Blu-ray, Video Quality
Zero Dark Thirty's Blu-ray presentation is about as faultless as the movie. The HD video photography is nothing short of striking; while it doesn't quite achieve the natural organic look of film, the source does capture, and the Blu-ray presents, a supremely well defined visual experience that's as good as any digital movie out there. The transfer reveals very crisp details; every square inch of the frame is perfectly defined, whether under bright desert sun or through night vision goggles. Complex aerial city shots are handled just as well as intimate close-ups; the former reveals every texture sharply and with incredible ease, the latter showing details as fine -- finer, maybe -- than the naked eye might perceive in real life. Every worn piece of concrete, each grain of sand, strand of clothing, bead of sweat, and drop of blood are revealed with no effort and the utmost clarity. Colors are equally impressive. The palette is naturally vibrant, again under all lighting conditions. No hue is betrayed by the transfer, none appear washed out or overly processed; each is beautifully displayed in every frame. Black levels are true but still revealing of critical information in the nighttime raid at film's end. Flesh tones are never problematic. Very light banding -- an inconsequential amount -- may be seen in one or two moments, but it's not quite enough to knock an otherwise perfect transfer from Sony.
Zero Dark Thirty Blu-ray, Audio Quality
Zero Dark Thirty's DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 lossless soundtrack is one of the finest available on Blu-ray. This is a track of incredible nuance, heavy bass, and precision elements alike, all played as part of a very full and convincing stage that effortlessly brings the picture's Oscar-winning sound to life. Nearly every scene is of reference grade, whether for more intensive sounds or more subtly crucial elements that truly define an atmosphere or a moment beyond the basics. The film begins with a frightening but sonically filling and perfectly defined string of communication sound bytes that literally flood the soundstage with chatter from every direction. Equally horrific are the sounds of the torture chamber, whether its creaking pulleys or punishing Metal music that pull the listener into the room, to almost experience firsthand the interrogation. Dialogue reverberates beautifully here, as it does in a few other points throughout the movie, showing an awareness of environment and absolute sound detail no matter the circumstance. Even minor exterior ambience and very subtle atmospherics -- light winds, rain and thunder, birds, insects, people rustling papers or shifting their weight in a chair -- are perfectly implemented where applicable. Gunfire sounds wonderfully authentic; AK fire during the Khobar Towers attack punishes listeners with the heavy, precise, and terrifying bursts, while suppressed M4 fire at the end plays with faultless accuracy. The track's low end is a match for the rest; a rumbling jet engine, the heavy spinning of helicopter rotors and the rattle heard inside the machine, or a few hefty explosions in which the sheer power is dotted by scattered debris tossed into every square inch of the listening area all showcase the importance of a natural low end to this, and any, film experience. Dialogue is centered and clear. This track does it all; faultless clarity, endlessly natural surround support, and aggressive but balanced bass are all major aspects perfectly blended together into what is one of the top soundtracks available on Blu-ray.
Zero Dark Thirty Blu-ray, Special Features and Extras
Zero Dark Thirty contains only four short featurettes. Hopefully, a more thorough special edition will one day be released.
Zero Dark Thirty Blu-ray, Overall Score and Recommendation
Zero Dark Thirty is quite the remarkable movie in any number of ways. It's highly controversial but grounds itself in an almost frighteningly real authenticity that must be seen to be believed. The film's ability to captivate its audience and maintain a steady rhythm even with an extended runtime and a foreknowledge of even some of the secondary story items is truly remarkable. Bigelow's craftsmanship is so good it seems almost beyond the limits of the medium; she captures an essence, an authenticity, an attention to detail, a grittiness, a reality that's incredibly difficult to achieve in film, and she does so by telling a story everybody knows but few really know and even fewer truly understand. The film is a technical masterpiece and very well performed to boot. It oozes a realism that's rare in cinema, and with that realism comes understandably difficult themes that have generated controversy but that are absolutely necessary to the contextual foundation of the story and critical in recreating as authentic a history as possible. This is a brilliant film in every regard that, no matter one's stance on the many arguments around it, is well worth the price of admission, and then some. Sony's Blu-ray release of Zero Dark Thirty features brilliant video and one of the top soundtracks the format has ever seen. The absence of a deeper supplemental section leaves this a prime candidate for reissue later down the road. Nevertheless, this is one of the must-see films being released to Blu-ray this year and it earns my highest recommendation.
Zero Dark Thirty: Other Editions
Zero Dark Thirty Blu-ray, News and Updates
• This Week on Blu-ray: March 19-26 - March 17, 2013
For the week of March 19th, New Line and Warner Home Entertainment are bringing The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey to Blu-ray. Despite the film's near-universal financial success - to date, it has grossed more than $1 billion - An Unexpected Journey did not find ...
• Zero Dark Thirty Blu-ray Detailed - February 12, 2013
Sony Pictures Home Entertainment has officially announced and detailed its upcoming combo pack release of director Kathryn Bigelow's Zero Dark Thirty (2012), starring Jessica Chastain, Joel Edgerton and Chris Pratt. The release will be available for purchase online ...
• Zero Dark Thirty Blu-ray (Pre-order Up) - January 26, 2013
Sony Pictures Home Entertainment has revealed that it is planning to bring to Blu-ray Kathryn Bigelow's Zero Dark Thirty (2012), starring Jessica Chastain, Joel Edgerton and Chris Pratt. The preliminary release date set by the studio is March 19th.
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Zero Dark Thirty Blu-ray, Forum Discussions
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