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Zero Dark Thirty
  • Composed by Alexandre Desplat
  • Madison Gate Records / 2012 / 53m

Kathryn Bigelow’s Zero Dark Thirty tells the story of the 2011 mission to dispatch justice, US-style, to Osama bin Laden. Its depiction of torture (or “enhanced interrogation” to use the CIA speak) makes it rather unsettling viewing and provokes the kind of thoughts and ethical dilemmas that most people would probably rather file away to think about another day. (Assuming most people are like me.) I don’t suppose many of the people who took to the streets to cheer at the news of bin Laden’s death are the sort of people who would watch a film like Zero Dark Thirty, but I wonder if they did see it, whether they’d be cheering at the number of people tortured by the good guys in order to get to the final military operation itself.

In any case, this is a film music website so such moral considerations can be happily left to one side and I can focus on the music, composed by Alexandre Desplat, who has turned into not just one of the most prolific film composers around but also one of the most diverse, flitting wildly between genres and seemingly mastering them all (2012 also included Argo which might be placed in the same boat as Zero Dark Thirty – but as well as that came the rousing Rise of the Guardians, the deeply thoughtful Rust and Bone, the quirky Moonrise Kingdom, and others besides).

Alexandre Desplat

Alexandre Desplat

Not surprisingly, this is a dark score. The London Symphony Orchestra is given a prominent credit, but often finds itself providing only very subtle melody while the lion’s share of a number of cues comes from electronic sound design. The opening “Flight to Compound” is a slow-burning prelude to the score, providing plenty of ominous foreshadowing of what’s to come without quite bursting to life, which is the story of much of what might nominally be termed as the action material. Exceptions include the slightly more expansive “Seals Take Off”, one of the few times the shackles are really released, with the main theme heard on low horns, brassy bursts which erupt at the end of the cue providing genuine thrills. There’s a rich nobility in “Preparation for Attack”, an electric guitar riff providing the backdrop to perhaps the score’s most expressive rendition of its main theme, conveying a sense of bravery if perhaps not exactly nobility.

More immediately easy to like are the parts of the score into which the composer injects some ethnic flavour through various wind instruments, initially in the beautifully evocative “Drive to Embassy”; later much more darkly in “Ammar” (one of many cues to feature the oft-heard Desplat electronic pulse, used here to create tension in a devastatingly-effective way). “Balawi” is an extremely beautiful piece, an extraordinary anguish evident in the haunting melody.

Only very rarely does the mood lighten at all. There is an air of Thomas Newman about the easygoing piano opening and pizzicato string closing to “21 Days”, perhaps the most straightforward piece on the album (and even that darkens considerably in its middle section). The pizzi strings do return much later in “Picket Lines”, but this time it’s pure Desplat, with that electronic pulse (and a slightly odd separate synthetic noise) building a searing tension. “Maya on Plane” provides a considerable emotional release, a dignified restraint maintained but a few shackles let go as the strings swell for the first and only time in the score.

There are some cues here which provide compelling accompaniment to the film but are harder going on the 53-minute album. Take “Monkeys”, which is essentially a short rhythmic pattern repeated on percussion for three minutes with the same little phrase repeating less often over the top; it’s gripping in context but you have to be in the mood to be challenged to find reward from it on the album. If you’re in that mood, there are rewards aplenty here, none more so than the general atmosphere, which is only helped by those pieces such as “Monkeys” – Desplat has taken huge care over how it’s all created and sustained. Zero Dark Thirty is a score drawn from very dark textures, only occasionally opening up and offering easier pickings; perfectly appropriate for the film, but the album’s not for the faint hearted. It’s more challenging and ultimately perhaps a little more rewarding than Argo, which was hardly a laugh-a-minute itself.

I find it very hard to fathom how this composer has become one of Hollywood’s most in-demand; his fiercely intelligent approach seems so at odds with a general sense of dumbing-down. But I’m very happy it’s happened – there’s a sense with Desplat that he always has something to say, something unique to add to a film even when he may be composing in a familiar style. This particular score treads a certain line very carefully, trying to remain neutral and documentary-like against some pretty horrifying imagery while still providing the required dramatic impetus; it must have been a hard act to pull off and, while the album is one unlikely to be played all that often, it’s a very impressive piece of work.

Rating: **** | |

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  1. Clark Provence (Reply) on Tuesday 23 July, 2013 at 21:04

    In response to the query in your opening paragraph: the answer is “yes, they would be cheering.” I live in the rural American south, and the crowd seemed to respond to the movie as a rousing, patriotic portrait of All-American ass-kicking. This was rather startling, as that wasn’t the movie I saw at all – but I suppose that’s a tribute to the objectivity Bigelow displays in recreating things.

    Anyway, excellent review of an excellent score!

  2. Jason Farcone (Reply) on Tuesday 23 July, 2013 at 21:49

    “I don’t suppose many of the people who took to the streets to cheer at the news of bin Laden’s death are the sort of people who would watch a film like Zero Dark Thirty.”

    James, these are the EXACT same people (the one’s who went cheering like a pack of baboons all over this great nation called the U.S.of.A; probably the best example of ‘mob mentality’ i can think of in the past decade) who go to see a propaganda piece like Zero Dark Thirty.

    had to correct you dear SIR.


    Desplat is still a badass tho, dat frenchie fry/frog.

  3. mastadge (Reply) on Tuesday 23 July, 2013 at 23:58

    This is one of those movies, like Passion of the Christ, that, though a fiction, hews close enough to what many believe that they see it more as a documentary than as a dramatized adaptation of events. 🙁

  4. Jason Farcone (Reply) on Wednesday 24 July, 2013 at 04:42

    ’tis probably true mastage. won’t comment any further on bigelow’s shameless ode to nothing, but i wouldn’t exactly compare the story of jesus christ to the FREAKING KILLING OF BIN LADEN. would u? oh. gibson received way too much flak for the passion, wasn’t great now was it, but who cares, he tried to tell a story worth telling. IF 0darkdirty was completely fictional and that ‘historic and proud event in american history’ never occured, I wouldn’t gripe for a second. alas.. read your comment, closed the window, few minutes later thought ‘HMM he mentioned the last temptation of christ’, so let me POST, ANOTHER, LINK. ya gibson is no scorsese, and i have issues, so am going to LINKY this ANYWAY (justification: james neglect; no review abound). and bigelow is not a bad director, and for a female, i can hardly give her too much of a verbal lashing, but her pretty hot body ;chest; has got to be at least a small part why she was allowed to climb up the tower of hollywood babel. and cameron naturally. really, was the hurt locker thaaaat good? shutup hasta. here’s limey link i don’t care.

  5. Kevin (Reply) on Wednesday 24 July, 2013 at 06:33

    Took you long enough. Good review nonetheless for a good score.

  6. mastadge (Reply) on Wednesday 24 July, 2013 at 13:14

    “but i wouldn’t exactly compare the story of jesus christ to the FREAKING KILLING OF BIN LADEN. would u? oh. gibson received way too much flak for the passion, wasn’t great now was it, but who cares, he tried to tell a story worth telling. IF 0darkdirty was completely fictional and that ‘historic and proud event in american history’ never occured, I wouldn’t gripe for a second.”

    But that’s just it, Jason: both of them are equally fictional, and yet both are believed to be recreations of fact by many viewers. Zero Dark Thirty is based on an actual mission, sure, but large parts of the background on the intel gathering/torture is just plain fabricated for the purposes of the movie. I’m not saying the two movies have similar subject matter, but that both movies are fictions that a lot of people can’t seem to separate in their heads from the actual events they adapt.

  7. Jason Farcone (Reply) on Wednesday 24 July, 2013 at 16:30

    mastadge still not sure I’m getting what you’re saying entirely,

    You say ZDT is based on an actual mission, yet bigelow fabricated a lot of the scenes… for entertainment purposes I’m sure, or again subversive hick-geared propaganda to make the american’s appear in a better light; haven’t seen it though, so pretty stupid postulating things, as I don’t know the context of the ‘torture’ scenes, etc… though I preeeedict its the GOOD GUY american ELITE SEALZ getting tortured by the ;;pakistani’s?;; )

    but still you say these particular sequences have no historic validity and never occured in the real operation to kill osama. so partly/perhaps largely fiction, seems logical.

    but with the passion of the christ, didn’t Gibson basically follow the final hours of jesus’ death, story wise, just as they were told in the biblical account? which parts of the story were fabricated and ‘not’ in the bible (I’m assuming you are claiming the ‘actual events’ of jesus’ life (or at least the end of it, during the time span the film covers) — the historic event — is the one as portrayed in the bible, eh? to be honest I don’t remember the passion well enough and am the farthest thing from a biblical scholar (though I was raised christian, secular education pushed me out of that for good or bad around adolescence — useless personal info, yes ma’am) hmm i can’t even focus. as most of us probably know gibson was mostly condemned for the overwrought emphasis on the blood and violence (SADOMASOCHISM THEY SHOUT!#%), not to mention LENGTH of all that, during the leading up to and ending after the crucifixion had taken place. but again just wondering since you classify the passion as “fiction” in comparison to the “event it adapted”, what were the fictional parts about it? slightly off topic I was talking about jesus’ death with someone online recently and mentioned the ‘crucifiction’… freudian slip? :/

    and really the reason dark thirty pissed me off so much as a big hollywood movie was because, as said above, the zealots cheering rampaging the streets when osama was killed were so sheepish, and really, about as offensive as the german book burnings in 1933ish. cause to me, there’d been seemingly ten freaking years’ of peace, no terrorist attacks whatsoever in america since 9-11, despite the constant, ongoing Goebbels-esque (god, two nazi references in one post) propaganda year after year that the ‘war on terror’ was still a (the?) major factor/threat, never-ending, for every citizen within these borders… getting osama so late after the game, after the lies, hell could have been a gov’t ploy just to boost the country morale temporarily (I don’t think it lasted long, if at all; tho I really have no idea how most america ‘watching’ the whole thing go down on the news, the killing itself, the principle of it, the flag-waving lemings, responded to these things. why am i writing so much about something i don’t even care about? gonna hunt you down mastadge. and maybe that adorer of ‘american ass-kicking’ named Clark Provence as well.

  8. Clark Provence (Reply) on Wednesday 24 July, 2013 at 21:20

    Jason, I would attempt to defend myself and explain that you seem to have misunderstood my comment… but then I’m finding it a little difficult to tell where your sincerity ends and your sarcasm begins. Cheers?#!???!

  9. Henry Kissinger (Reply) on Wednesday 24 July, 2013 at 21:44

    Calm down, Jason.

  10. Jason Farcone (Reply) on Thursday 25 July, 2013 at 04:54

    I think I was delirious and sleep-deprived on that last comment.

  11. Jason Farcone (Reply) on Thursday 25 July, 2013 at 04:55

    (obv the hunting down bit was sarcasm btw, clark 😛 )

  12. Sakis (Reply) on Monday 11 May, 2020 at 23:53

    Alexandre Desplat is my favourite composer. Zero Dark Thirty is a dark score with stranges sounds, deep sounds, like a underground. Like before ago 2000 ages. archaic sound, with suspence but no bombastic musics no bombastic. but strong sounds i mean orchestrations. Alexandre Desplat wrote a very unisifique score with very mystique sounds, a battlefield. Alexandre talks for death, sorrow, war, suspence, energy, drama, mystery, violence. He don’t talk for action, adventure, fantastic journeys, bombastic, battles, guns, majesty, armies. It isn’t a epic score with epic sounds *like Harry Potter And The Deathly Hallows Part 2, Nid De Guepes, Godzilla, Largo Winch 2. It is a epic score with no epic scales but epic deeps sounds, very deep sounds. Alexande Desplat is a genius. I love epic soundtracks. Alexander wrote the appropriate musical score. This score is worth it in this movie. Alexander is the soul of the film with his music. Thanks from Greece. Sorry for my english. Alexandre Desplat wrote one of the most unique, unprecedented,
    very unusual, experimental soundtrack for epic war movie. Αlexandre Desplat is really a chameleon musician.

  13. Sakis (Reply) on Tuesday 12 May, 2020 at 00:15

    Alexandre Desplat – Zero Dark Thirty *****. Excellent review and site.