Zero Dark Thirty (4K UHD Review)

  • Reviewed by: Bill Hunt
  • Review Date: Sep 20, 2017
  • Format: Blu-ray Disc
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Zero Dark Thirty (4K UHD Review)

Director

Katherine Bigelow

Release Date(s)

2012 (September 12, 2017)

Studio(s)

Annapurna/Columbia Pictures (Sony Pictures Home Entertainment)
  • Film/Program Grade: A
  • Video Grade: A
  • Audio Grade: A
  • Extras Grade: D

Review

[Editor’s Note: Sony tells me that this disc is a Best Buy exclusive initially, but it will go into wide release later in 2017. We’ll add the Amazon purchase links when they’re available. In the meantime, clicking on the text below the cover art will take you to the Best Buy order page.]

By any estimation, the challenge of producing a film about the hunt for Osama bin Laden without politicizing or sensationalizing the events (or simply creating the usual docudrama cheese) is enormous. Several recent filmmakers have tried and failed – witness Seal Team SixKilling bin LadenTargeting bin LadenThe Last Days of Osama bin Laden, etc. Add to this the complications of producing an entirely dramatized narrative for the big screen and finding a cast worthy of the challenge, and you have a project that could easily have gone bad in multiple ways. So the simple fact that Kathryn Bigelow’s Zero Dark Thirty succeeds to the impressive extent it does would almost have made it a worthy Best Picture nominee alone. But it’s the achievement of screenwriter Mark Boal, not to mention the raw but restrained performance of actress Jessica Chastain, that sets this film apart from the rest of its lot.

What really drives Zero Dark Thirty is the film’s methodical pacing and narrative approach as a straight-forward procedural of “black ops” CIA intelligence work. Boal, a former journalist, put his investigative stills to work in extensively researching the events that led to bin Laden’s discovery. Over a period of months and years, he gradually developed the trust of many of those directly involved in the real events (under the condition that their identities would not be compromised), from CIA analysts to Delta operators, and used these interviews to build an accurate (thought certainly greatly simplified for dramatic purposes) picture of the hunt. Boal even spoke with the real female CIA agent depicted in the film (“Maya” as played by Chastain).

The film opens in the aftermath of September 11th (signified by the sound of 911 emergency calls from that day) and depicts the extensive and painstaking effort to uncover bin Laden’s whereabouts, from the early, so-called “enhanced” interrogations to later breakthroughs, discoveries and electronic signal intercepts. All of these gradually lead Maya (obviously a pseudonym and likely a dramatic amalgam of multiple real individuals) to the conclusion that bin Laden is hiding in a fortress-like compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan just yards from their military equivalent of West Point. But the best evidence is still sketchy and circumstantial, and convincing her superiors proves extremely difficult. Ultimately, a daring nighttime special operations raid is launched as a risky gamble, based on essentially a 50/50 shot that bin Laden is actually there. The raid is shown with the same restrained, methodical pacing as the rest of the film and when the infamous moment finally arrives, it’s subtle, quick and largely left to the imagination of the viewer. Never does this film sensationalize or flag wave, and its “just the facts” approach is a great deal of the reason why it’s so effective. Presidents Bush and Obama are barely seen, only in TV media footage playing in the background of scenes. In the end, the only real emotions we experience are the physical and emotional strain the effort places on everyone involved in the hunt. We last see Maya in a state of shock – the single-minded goal she’s sacrificed 12 long and difficult years of her life working towards has been achieved. We’re left with a simple question: What now?

One of the things I found most interesting about this film, is the way so many politicians (and others in the media) tried to make it political after the fact. There were claims that the “enhanced” interrogation was sensationalized, that it was shown in a “pro-torture” way, that special access was given to the filmmakers to make the White House look good, etc. Personally, I think that’s mostly hype and hot air. I’ve read many of the books written to date by those involved and have watched videos of discussion panels in which several of the actual CIA officers involved described their work. “Enhanced” interrogation was apparently never used Jack Bauer-style to gain needed information. Rather questions were asked that the CIA already knew the answers to as a way to tell when the most hardcore detainees were being truthful or lying. Multiple experts on the matter have said that while some useful information was gained in this way, the “enhanced” techniques were no more or less effective than other more standard interrogation techniques. Public debate about whether they should have been used at all is certainly fair and a natural part of a healthy democratic process, but I’m making no judgments about the subject one way or another in this review. It’s simply my opinion that the film also isn’t making a judgment on the matter. Like it or not, “enhanced” interrogation happened and I believe the film simply depicts the process non-gratuitously, with relative fairness and impartially. Your mileage may vary.

Zero Dark Thirty was shot digitally using ARRI Alexa cameras in the ARRIRAW codec (at 2.8K). It was finished to a 2K Digital Intermediate, upsampled and given a new HDR color grade (HDR10) for this release. It’s presented here on 4K Ultra HD in the 1.85:1 theatrical aspect ratio. The 4K presentation is quite good overall, especially for a 2K upsample. It’s incredibly clean and clear, with very deep yet detailed blacks. The brightest areas of the frame and highlights are strong but never overblown. The detail and texturing are a little bit improved over the previous Blu-ray, though not dramatically so. The colors are vibrant and nuanced – significantly more so than on the Blu-ray – and accurate at all times, with a slightly warm overall tone befitting the film’s setting. It should be noted that the High Dynamic Range isn’t meant to dazzle here, it’s simply not that kind of film. What HDR does instead is to give the image a more realistic, naturalistic look and it does this very well indeed. However, once the raid on the Abbottabad compound begins, the HDR really lends itself to the dark imagery and especially to the use of night vision.

The audio here has been upgraded to a new object-based English Dolby Atmos mix (that’s 7.1 Dolby TrueHD compatible). It’s an outstanding mix for a dramatic film, not one that is terribly heavy on sonic bombast but it dazzles with subtle atmospheric cues and a great sense of immersion. Dialogue and sound effects clarity is excellent, staging is smooth and natural, and there’s excellent low end support when needed. The overhead channels are employed to enclose the soundfield and are especially useful during the Seal Team raid. Additional audio options include English Descriptive Audio. Optional subtitles are available in English and English SDH only.

The 4K disc is movie-only, with no extras included. As usual, the package adds the film on Blu-ray in 1080p. This appears to be the exact same edition released previously, with the following featurettes in HD:

  • No Small Feat (3:51)
  • The Compound (9:25)
  • Geared Up (7:03)
  • Targeting Jessica Chastain (5:09)

They’re basically just EPK promotional pieces. This film would really benefit from audio commentary or the inclusion of any number of great documentary specials that have been done on this subject, but such is not to be here. The package also includes the usual paper insert containing a Digital Copy code.

Zero Dark Thirty offers little in the way of flash. It doesn’t have the cinematic style of... say, Tinker Taylor Soldier Spy. Bigelow’s work in this film almost feels invisible, which is a deceptively simple and a significant achievement in and of itself. In any case, this is one of the better big screen intelligence procedurals you’ll ever see. Zero Dark Thirty is, in my opinion, exactly the film it needs to be… and a film that’s well worth experiencing, especially on Ultra HD.

- Bill Hunt

(You can follow Bill on social media at these links: Twitter and Facebook)

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