Zero Dark Thirty is a lot like Titanic in the sense that this is a film where the audience knows going in how it’s going to end, and yet that knowledge doesn’t hinder the suspense or uncertainty felt throughout as we wait for the inevitable conclusion to occur. Unlike many military films, Zero Dark Thirty focuses mainly on what takes place behind the scenes, or at least off of the battlefield.
Now when I say off the battlefield, I don’t mean out of harms way, as it’s not only soldiers who put their lives on the line every day overseas. No, many military and intelligence officers put it all on the line for their country as well, and this story focuses mainly on them – or to be more specific, on Maya (Jessica Chastain), who, according to writer/producer Mark Boal, is based on a real woman that he’d heard about during his research.
The film begins in 2003, with Maya arriving at the U.S. embassy in Pakistan, where she is assigned to work with Dan (Jason Clarke), an operative who refers to himself as “bad news” for alleged terrorists that he interrogates at a black site in the area. Maya begins to accompany Dan to these interrogations, which are hard for her to stomach at first; however, she quickly pushes by that hurdle and begins wielding an iron fist herself.
The film spans roughly the entire decade it took to finally take down bin Laden, and it does so through well placed chapters that help skip over the months and years when the hunt seemed somewhat futile. Kathryn Bigelow of Hurt Locker fame really has a knack for building suspense, as she does so time and time again out of scenes that sometimes lead to a payoff for the built up tension, and other times just leave you unnerved because of how well the scenes are crafted, and how on edge these operatives must be at all times – even if they don’t seem to show it.
The story focuses mainly on finding and killing bin Laden, so outside of Maya’s character arc, there isn’t really anyone with too much depth to them. This doesn’t really hinder the film, as Maya is a representation of the work done by many, and with almost ten years of this manhunt to get through, the film doesn’t really have time to stop and delve into every character on a meaningful level.
That said, Boal does do a great job of giving these supporting characters their own individual characteristics that allows them to stand out from one another, and be memorable in their own right. The closest one to Maya in terms of depth is Dan, who is a tough interrogator when he needs to get information; though he’s also got a conscience, and it’s not as though what he does doesn’t take a toll on him.
Clarke plays this character so well that it’s unfortunate when his character reassigns himself back to Washington early on in the film. He’s the kind of character you’d expect to see face the threat side by side with Maya from start to finish; however, this isn’t a two-hour film that takes place over a small period of time. This is ten years in the lives of these characters, and sometimes – much to the hindrance of character interest – their role in the big picture is a smaller one.
Another actor who deserves to be singled out is Reda Kateb, who is only seen in the first act of the film. Kateb plays Ammar, a member of an Al Qauda terrorist cell who was captured and is now being tortured by Dan for information. Much of the controversy that surrounds the film comes from the opening scenes with Kateb, and it’s clear that torture is in no way glorified or pushed as the right thing to do under any circumstance. While I won’t go any further into the controversy surrounding the film, I will say that Kateb is flawless throughout these unforgiving scenes.
Other great supporting characters are George (played by Mark Strong), one of the head agents for the CIA; Larry (Edgar Ramirez), a CIA Special Activities Division officer; Islamabad Station Chief Joseph Bradley (Kyle Chandler); CIA operative Jessica (Jennifer Ehle); U.S Navy Seals Patrick and Justin (Joel Edgerton and Chris Pratt respectively); and the director of the CIA played by James Gandolfini. All these actors do a superb job of bringing these characters to life, and help make them interesting and unique for however much screen time they end up having over the course of the film – which in some cases is just a few scenes.
Chastain was nominated for an Oscar for her work as Maya and deservingly so, as she puts her heart and soul into the character, which is clear in each scene she’s in. Maya is a tough operative, though she’s also human, and Chastain brings all of these qualities together incredibly well in her performance, and really carries the film on her shoulders throughout.
Bigelow and Boal prove once again to be a powerhouse team when it comes to creating military thrillers. Bigelow gets the viewer right into the thick of things, both during the action scenes, as well as during the tension-filled interrogation scenes. This is a duo that will hopefully remain united when it comes to making films in the future, as they really play well off of one another, and their consecutive Best Picture nods (one of them being a win for The Hurt Locker) for their work proves this.
Coming out only two years after the climactic conclusion to the bin Laden saga took place, Zero Dark Thirty will likely go down as a military classic. While there will likely be smaller stories told about events that took place during this timespan, it will be hard to find another film that encompasses the entire decade that this infamous manhunt took place over as well as this one does.
The film won an Oscar for sound editing, and it’s clear why with the sound transfer given to this Blu-ray release. The mix sounds incredible, and it helps draw you right into the film for its entire 2.5-hour duration. The video transfer is also just as good, with some superb lighting, as well as fantastic night shots, with a good portion of the final act being seen through night-vision goggles. Both transfers are fantastic, and well worth investing in.
The special features are surprisingly sparse for a film with such high recognition (though the same thing happened with Bigelow’s The Hurt Locker as well, so maybe it’s not too surprising). While this may mean that an anniversary edition or something with more features will be released in the future, odds are it’ll be a ways down the road, so fans of the film should aim to pick up this copy regardless of extras.
No Small Feat – This piece runs at just under four minutes in length and sees Bigelow and Boal briefly talk about how they were in the middle of finishing up a script for the story of how bin Laden was almost captured in December 2001 when word came in that he was killed and they decided to toss out that story and start again to keep things updated. Various cast and crewmembers also talk briefly about working on the film with Bigelow behind the camera and such.
The Compound – This featurette runs at just under 10 minutes in length and talks about the creation of the compound used for the climactic scene in the film. The production designer talks about how they created it from photographs and information from the Internet, and how it was build in 3.5 months.
Geared Up – This featurette focuses on the training various actors went through in order to prepare for the battle sequences of the film. It runs at just over seven minutes in length.
Targeting Jessica Chastain – This piece runs at just over five minutes in length and mainly focuses on Chastain talking about the role of Maya, and how when she read it she compared it to the type of strong character Jodie Foster played in The Silence of the Lambs. She talks about working close to Pakistan, with Bigelow, and other crewmembers also talk about working with Chastain.
Zero Dark Thirty is the essential story of the decade long manhunt for bin Laden, and all the work that went in to finding him. The film is extremely well acted from all fronts, right down to the minutest character, and the direction by Bigelow is once again astonishing. With so much ground to cover, Zero Dark Thirty isn’t without its weak links that mostly revolve around lack of character depth; however, that’s not enough to hinder the intensity the film brings forward, and in the end this is one that shouldn’t be missed.
Columbia Pictures Presents Zero Dark Thirty. Directed by: Kathryn Bigelow. Written by: Mark Boal. Starring: Jessica Chastain, Jason Clarke, Reda Kateb, Kyle Chandler, Jennifer Ehle, Jeremy Strong, Joel Edgerton, Chris Pratt, James Gandolfini, Mark Strong, Edgar Ramirez. Running time: 154 minutes. Rating: R. Released: March 19, 2013. Available at Amazon.com.
Tags: Chris Pratt, James Gandolfini, Jason Clarke, Jessica Chastain, Joel Edgerton, Kathryn Bigelow, Kyle Chandler, Mark Boal, Mark Strong, The Hurt Locker