The likelihood that anyone will make a film about the events that led to the killing of Osama bin Laden that causes no severe outrage is roughly the same as the likelihood that everyone is going to be pleased with the fate of those who essentially legalized and perpetrated torture to locate bin Laden. So, the fact that Kathryn Bigelow’s exceptional Zero Dark Thirty roused a contingency of political reporters to completely misread the tone of Bigelow’s somber procedural as celebratory or especially nationalistic, allowing them to give many of their fellow liberals a quick reminder that they weren’t liberal enough, was inevitable. Himself leaning hard on a myriad of insinuations and assumptions, Matt Taibbi went as far as to crudely suggest that Bigelow and her collaborator, Mark Boal, were responsible for bin Laden’s “last victory over America” because their film wasn’t factually accurate, by extension helping many Americans to blindly accept the criminal acts of torture that Bush rubberstamped away.
Of course, Zero Dark Thirty takes the permeable line between certainty and probability as a sizeable part of its thematic spine. Following a quick but effective 9/11 preamble, the film opens as Maya (Jessica Chastain) looks in on the torture and interrogation of Ammar (Reda Ketab) by her colleague, Dan (Jason Clarke), who constantly reminds the detainee that providing partial answers is no different than being unresponsive. It’s a lie, along with the bribery of a good full meal, which leads Ammar to give up his brethren, subsequently tossing Maya down a bureaucratic rabbit hole that ends at bin Laden’s front door. Many of the film’s most remarkable scenes involve Maya convincing her male superiors, played most prominently by Kyle Chandler, Mark Strong, and James Gandolfini, to trust her gut, even as the demand and need for hard proof escalates. As Maya puts it, they just want to check off a box on their next résumé and have proof that they got the information, but Dan’s assertion that “we don’t know what we don’t know” is closer to the truth of the situation and serves as the film’s central thesis.
The increasing rate at which behavior and tradecraft is treated as concrete information is of particular interest to Bigelow, as Boal’s dialogue is constantly circling around the substance and probative value of absence, and the faultiness of what can be proven. In other words, the film is about storytelling, and the fact that Maya is Bigelow’s first lead female protagonist since Blue Steel, the director’s most wildly idiosyncratic film, amplifies the metaphorical value of the role of a woman working and succeeding in a classically male occupation. And the filmmaker’s attraction to her chosen genre and subject matter is implied when Joel Edgerton’s Seal Team Six leader says he’s completely convinced of the mission’s validity, simply because of Maya’s confidence.
Boal and Bigelow obviously side with Maya, but neither are blind to the fallacy of her cause, which becomes personal for Maya when her closest colleague, Jessica (Jennifer Ehle), is killed by a suicide bomber. For Maya, bin Laden’s body is the ultimate proof, the only proof she’ll ever need that what she did and what we did was justified, but the tears she sheds, alone on a plane to who knows where, are of an dreadful emptiness that has just finally settled into its resting space in the pit of her stomach. To look at Chastain in this moment and think that relief is even on Maya’s radar is to not only minimize Bigelow’s tremendous ability to deconstruct the substance of violence, both physically and emotionally, but to also short-change Chastain’s stunningly acute performance.
Bigelow’s assured, breathless handling of the climactic siege on bin Laden’s compound in Abbottabad may be the most potent and seemingly effortless display of the director’s ability to choreograph exact and powerful movement in tight, dangerous spaces; her ability to mount active tension is very simply unparalleled. The film ends with a big fat question mark, not an exclamation point: What is a specialist to do when they have succeeded at exactly what they set out to do and find that satisfaction, even pride is still out of grasp? It’s that rare follow-up to a monumental success that considers the fleeting nature of success, especially for the truly ambitious. In criticizing Zero Dark Thirty for not being the movie that clearly and thoughtfully depicts the frustration and anger of the Bush era, many critics and journalists have confirmed what seems to be Bigelow’s deepest fear, that the success of The Hurt Locker has closed many more doors than it could ever open.
Sony's DVD transfer of Zero Dark Thirty is, all told, pretty impressive. More than color, what's highlighted here is texture and detail, from Seal Team Six's outfits to the modern interiors of the C.I.A. offices and the dingy barracks where Ammar is tortured, and Sony has transferred these elements to home entertainment admirably. Clarity isn't perfect, but rarely distracting enough to merit major complaint, and black levels are solid. The audio is handled a bit better, with Mark Boal's sharp, technical dialogue out front and Alexandre Desplat's moody score balanced with a dense thicket of sound effects, including plenty of gunfire and explosions.
Sony has included four featurettes here, each one covering a crucial element of Kathryn Bigelow's film, but each one feels half-measured. The best ones deal with the reconstruction of Osama bin Laden's compound in Abbottabad and the believability and behavior of Seal Team Six in the movie, but even these extras feel hurried and only passingly interested in their respective subject matter. The other two cover Jessica Chastain's performance and the making of the film, but seem to have been made simply to construct a veneer of fascination.
Slathered in controversy, Kathryn Bigelow's Zero Dark Thirty confidently and forcefully storms onto DVD with an admirable A/V transfer, only hindered by a paltry gathering of extras from Sony.