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Zero Dark Thirty’s Split-Personality Ad Campaign

Here are two TV spots. Both are for movies about the hunt for Osama bin Laden. One features characters staring into the distance, small interpersonal moments, fawning quotes from critics, and a soft orchestral hum. The other is all helicopters, explosions, menacing jokes, the loud churning of hard-rock guitar and drums, and a driving sense of Look out Osama, we're comin' to get yer ass!

Surprise! They're from the same movie! The first spot, which was released ahead of the film's select-city December release, portrays the film as Jessica Chastain's measured and emotionally trying journey to find America's most elusive foe. The second, which was released this week ahead of the film's wide release, portrays the movie as a story about a bunch of SEALs dodging explosions to kill a terrorist. Hell, besides brief shots of Chastain's hair, she isn't even in the second spot. Instead, we see two jacked bros fist-bumping. Maybe the most startling fact is how the two trailers use the same exact quote: "There's nobody else coming to the rescue. There is just us." In the first, it is seen delivered by a boss lecturing his CIA staff in a conference room, while in the second, the quote is disembodiedly moved to go over footage of the SEALs, as if it is coming from a hard-ass sergeant rallying his men; then Chris Pratt says, "I'm cool with that" and fists are bumped. Together these clips perfectly represent the parity that is Zero Dark Thirty's ad campaign. 

The people marketing the excellent Zero Dark Thirty are trying to undertake a classic have-your-cake-and-eat-it-too situation. They want some people — especially those in NYC and L.A. — to think they are going to see a cerebral, highly personal account of the war on terror. And they want others — especially those who see the ads during football games — to think they're going into a balls-to-the-wall, Black Hawk Down–style jingoistic military thrill ride. This is not an uncommon practice; the Weinsteins made their bones figuring out ways to repackage their indies into seeming more mainstream, and director Kathryn Bigelow experienced a similar marketing approach for her last film, The Hurt Locker. However, rarely is the contrast so startling. 

Yet, ZDT is so much more like the first trailer than the second. Sure, there is some torture at the top, a surge toward the end when the final operation goes down (and which has no musical score pumping it on), and an explosion or two in the middle, but mostly it's a lot of Jessica Chastain thinking and stressing out. There's literally a section of the movie that involves Chastain's character incessantly complaining about the lack of action taken by her superiors. Yes, two Navy SEALs fist-bump at one point, but Chastain is also there to smile at their immaturity.

The film opens wide this Friday, not at all coincidentally a day after the Oscar nominations are announced. If the Academy gives them a lot of love, which they're expected to, then Sunday will be a fun day for Zero Dark Thirty's promotion team, as they'll be pushing the explosive spot during the NFL playoff games and a spot touting all of their Oscar nods during the Golden Globes. It's a strategy that hopes that each member of a couple thinks they're getting one over on the other. "Somehow I got him/her to agree to see Zero Dark Thirty," they'll both tell their friends. "Sucker."

Photo: Columbia Pictures