ZERO DARK THIRTY – Alexandre Desplat
Original Review by Jonathan Broxton
Zero Dark Thirty is the seventh and final score of 2012 from the workaholic composer Alexandre Desplat, whose output this year has ranged from the lush and emotional Cloclo to the quirky Moonrise Kingdom, the sweeping and playful Rise of the Guardians, and the darkly dramatic Argo, for which he received his fifth Academy Award nomination. His work on Zero Dark Thirty, as one would expect, is most closely aligned with his work on Argo, making use of subtle Middle Eastern tones as part of its orchestral makeup, but its overall demeanor is less flashy and less crowd-pleasing than that of Argo, matching the tone and style taken by the film’s director, Kathryn Bigelow, in the movie itself.
I have some serious issues with Zero Dark Thirty as a movie, but I’ll get to those in a minute. The film tells the painstakingly detailed and (allegedly) true story of the way the United States military tracked down Osama Bin Laden, the Al Qaeda leader responsible for masterminding the 9/11 terrorist attacks on New York in 2001, who was eventually killed by elite US special forces during a raid on a compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan in May 2011. It stars Jessica Chastain in the lead role as Maya, an ambitious CIA analyst whose work attempting to locate and capture Bin Laden included participating in the ‘enhanced interrogation’ of prisoners in US custody, traveling across the Middle East talking to witnesses, coercing senior military officials into giving her more help and support in her task, before eventually becoming personally involved in the final raid. Jason Clarke, Joel Edgerton, Mark Strong, Jennifer Ehle, James Gandolfini amd Kyle Chandler appear in recurring supporting roles, and the film is technically superb, capturing the minutiae of life in the CIA with a vivid eye for visual detail via an exciting, if tech-speak heavy script.
My issues with the film are personal and ethical, and concern my own beliefs on the use of torture. It’s a complicated issue which I don’t quite have a handle on myself; on the one hand, the world is unquestionably a safer place with Osama Bin Laden no longer in it, and the men and women who worked tirelessly to bring him to justice clearly need to be commended for their service. On the other hand, I find the fact that the CIA used water boarding, sexual humiliation, and other ‘enhanced interrogation’ techniques during this process repugnant, as it goes against all the ethnical moral standards I hold myself to. Other films have shown other torture sequences, many of them significantly more graphic than the ones shown here, but in the vast majority of films you are on the side of the person being tortured. The ones doing the torturing are always the bad guys, subjecting the hero to the most painful and humiliating ordeals. However, Zero Dark Thirty invites the viewer to sympathize and in some cases agree with the torturers that committing these acts was a necessary evil for a ‘greater good’, and I find it difficult to reconcile my feelings about this in the context of the movie. As I said, it’s a complicated issue which requires more detailed thought, but as I watched the film, for better or worse, I found myself having a negative visceral reaction to what I was seeing on screen, and this clouded my judgment of the rest of the film as it progressed.
None of this has anything to do with the impact of the music, though, which for the most part is good. Alexandre Desplat’s score is more textural and color-palette based than it is thematic, and although the orchestra is present throughout, it is often augmented, and occasionally surpassed, by the heavy use of electronic and sampled percussion, and ethnic woodwind instruments from the region. There is a recurring main theme – a moody ascending five note motif – which first appears in “Seals Take Off”. It reappears later in a different, more positive key in “Preparations for Attack”, and makes an appearance on ethnic woodwinds in “Dead End”, before bringing the album back to a close in the decidedly downbeat and non-celebratory “Back to Base”, which ends the proceedings on a moment of introspection. However, beyond this short recurring identifier, most of Desplat’s score relies on textures and instrumental timbres to tell its story.
The main action sequences are scattered around the soundtrack album; “Flight to Compound”, which opens the score, has a shadowy staccato rhythmic core which oscillates between strings and brass, creating a sense of urgency and expectancy. A punchy one-note motif for French horns and the addition of a mysterious-sounding woodwind effect during the cue’s second half gives the listener a little respite from the tension, but the overall effect is one of steely determination and breathless anticipation rather than edge-of-seat thrills. The aforementioned “Seals Take Off” is one of the action cues which stands out greatly in the film itself, stating the main theme on low, patriotic horns and underpinning it with the timpani rhythms from Birth, and then bringing in an exciting string ostinato and fat brass blasts to drive the sequence along.
Elsewhere, the ethnic flutes are prominent in cues such as “Drive to Embassy”, “Ammar”, the fascinating “Northern Territories”, and the mournful “Balawi”, enlivening the score somewhat with some regional specificity, but these are surrounded by low-key soundscape cues like “Bombings”, “Monkeys” and “Area 51”, which are interesting from a technical point of view, provide little in terms of memorable musical content for the more casual listener to take away. The use of ethnic flutes, and other such instruments, is often decried as being a cliché, but in scores like these you have to take regional specificity into account when trying to recapture the musical heritage of a particular place on Earth, and Desplat manages to tread this fine line of making the music redolent of a place, without it being overbearing or overwhelming to those who find such instrumental ideas unpalatable.
A few moments of hesitant warmth do creep in here and there; “21 Days” has a lighter pizzicato element which allows it to stand out significantly from the rest of the score, and “Maya on Plane” has a more intimate acoustic guitar sequence that attempts to capture the sense of relief and closure felt by the lead character once her life’s work – literally, her life’s work – has been completed. The pizzicato element returns towards the end of the score, playing in a frantic duet with skittery piano chords and a synth pulse in the unusual but effective “Picket Lines”. There’s a sound effect in this cue which baffles me as it sounds like the sampled sound of a snorting bull!
For the most part, though, Zero Dark Thirty is not a flamboyant score, and although this work is much more contemporary in style and tone than some of Desplat’s other, more classically-inclined works, listeners who never warmed to Desplat’s precise style will likely find themselves left out in the cold here too. But, through it all, this is still a Desplat score through and through – there are numerous moments where his personal style comes to the fore, and they are littered through the score, in the instrumental phrasings, in the use of a bass synth pulse in many cues, and in its textural allusions to scores like Argo and Syriana, so listeners who do enjoy hearing Desplat’s personal stylistics in markedly different settings may enjoy the nuances.
One thing also worth mentioning, however, is the almost complete lack of heroism in Desplat’s music; it accompanies the research, search, and eventual attack on Bin Laden’s compound with a sense of detached professionalism, as if acknowledging that this is dirty business that has to be done, but not celebrated. For that level of restraint, I applaud the French composer – his taste and decorum in presenting his music in this way is commendable, even if it lessens the impact of the score on CD. Zero Dark Thirty is well composed, interesting, and complex, but not one which will appeal to the masses – it’s lack of hung-ho patriotism, while wholly appropriate in context, may cause it to be overlooked by fans of the genre who would otherwise be drawn to music of this type.
Buy the Zero Dark Thirty soundtrack from the Movie Music UK Store
- Flight to Compound (5:07)
- Drive to Embassy (1:44)
- Bombings (3:46)
- Ammar (4:06)
- Monkeys (2:59)
- Northern Territories (3:46)
- Seals Take Off (2:34)
- 21 Days (2:04)
- Preparation for Attack (1:45)
- Balawi (3:15)
- Dead End (3:26v
- Maya on Plane (3:59)
- Area 51 (1:42)
- Tracking Calls (3:46)
- Picket Lines (3:03)
- Towers (2:02)
- Chopper (1:48v
- Back to Base (2:41)
Running Time: 52 minutes 49 seconds
Madison Gate Records (2012)
Music composed and conducted by Alexandre Desplat. Performed by The London Symphony Orchestra. Orchestrated by Jean-Pascal Beintus, Nicolas Charron and Sylvain Morizet. Recorded and mixed by Peter Cobbin. Edited by Gerard McCann. Album produced by Alexandre Desplat.