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Oscar®Oscar® Nominee (but no wins) for Best Picture, Best Writing (Original Screenplay), Best Actress in a leading role, Best Film Editing, Best Sound Editing

Zero Dark Thirty

also known as “Kill Bin Laden”
MPA Rating: R-Rating (MPA) for strong violence including brutal disturbing images, and for language.

Reviewed by: Jeremy Landes

Average—with strong caution
Moviemaking Quality:

Primary Audience:
Action Adventure Drama
2 hr. 37 min.
Year of Release:
USA Release:
December 19, 2012 (limited)
January 11, 2013 (wide—2,400+ theaters)
DVD: March 19, 2013
Copyright, Columbia Pictures, Sony Pictures click photos to ENLARGE Copyright, Columbia Pictures, Sony Pictures Copyright, Columbia Pictures, Sony Pictures Copyright, Columbia Pictures, Sony Pictures Copyright, Columbia Pictures, Sony Pictures Copyright, Columbia Pictures, Sony Pictures Copyright, Columbia Pictures, Sony Pictures Copyright, Columbia Pictures, Sony Pictures Copyright, Columbia Pictures, Sony Pictures Copyright, Columbia Pictures, Sony Pictures
Relevant Issues
Copyright, Columbia Pictures, Sony Pictures

Al Qaeda

terrorist Osama bin Laden

U.S. President Barack Obama


Navy Seals

Featuring Jessica Chastain
Taylor Kinney
Scott Adkins
Mark Duplass
Mark Strong
Chris Pratt
Joel Edgerton
Harold Perrineau
Kyle Chandler
Jason Clarke
See all »
Director Kathryn Bigelow—“The Hurt Locker
Producer Annapurna Pictures
Kathryn Bigelow … producer
See all »
Distributor Columbia Pictures, Sony Pictures

“The greatest manhunt in history”

Watching “Zero Dark Thirty” is an act of remembrance. Because the suffering caused by war and terrorism occurred a few thousand miles away, and since I wasn’t required to fight, I can too easily forget how many lives have been destroyed, non-Muslim and Muslim, because of Osama bin Laden and his network, Al Qaeda. This film depicts some of the hard work and sacrifice required to stop bin Laden’s reign. In just under three hours, we receive a summary of a decade’s worth of detective work to find the terrorist’s hiding place and then convince the U.S. Government to take a huge risk by attacking him inside Pakistan.

Note: “Zero dark 30” is a common military term referring to a non-specific time when it is dark outside, either very late or very early.

This film is riveting. The filmmakers don’t flinch from showing the harsh torture tactics the U.S. was using for years in order to try and gain information. It is unsettling to watch people being hurt badly—usually, torturers are painted as the bad guys in a story. Interestingly, though, the torture victim responds with good information only when he is treated kindly. Whether this reflects reality, I cannot say, but the movie definitely isn’t making the statement: “Torture works.”

Many epic films center on a noble character that you quickly come to like because they have some endearing quality. Not so here. We watch CIA operative Maya (Jessica Chastain) for more than two hours, but we learn hardly anything about her, except that she’s passionate about doing whatever is required to find Osama bin Laden and make sure he dies. Her character is based on someone in reality, but personal facts have been obscured to protect her identity. Maya has to constantly overcome pressure to give up, bosses unwilling to help, and doubts from bureaucrats who would rather risk leaving bin Laden alive than make a mistake and lose their jobs. She’s described as “a killer,” though she never raises her fists. When a torture victim begs her to come to his aid and show mercy, she tells him plainly, “You can help yourself by being truthful.” This is a woman who knows she’s doing right, even though you can tell she’s sometimes shaken by the tactics used to avert terrorist attacks. More than once, Maya’s life is in serious peril, and she tells one colleague, “I believe I was spared to finish the job.”

I wondered, “Spared by Whom?” “Does Maya have faith?” but the filmmakers leave that topic alone.

Most people going into the movie will know it’s about finding bin Laden, and they already know he was killed in May 2011, so it would make sense that the movie wouldn’t have much suspense. But director Kathryn Bigelow does such a good job showing the details of the final mission, that you feel like one of the invading soldiers wearing night goggles. It’s an extraordinary scene. I felt that the highest value portrayed in the film was a willingness to be scorned by peers and risk great failure in order to accomplish a worthy mission.

Throughout the film, Maya finds it necessary to swear a lot, using the f-word to gain the attention and respect of her gruff male superiors. The tactic works. I thought the tough language was probably an accurate portrayal of that work environment. Watching people blow themselves and other people up and using machine guns to destroy civilians is not entertaining for me, but “Zero Dark Thirty” is attempting to depict some history that includes horrific violence.

In decades to come, when new generations wonder about the first decade of the new millennium, I believe this is a film that will still be watched to explain the wars America was fighting. It neither glorifies violence nor denies what happened, so I have a hard time labeling the film even “somewhat offensive,” believing that what is shown here is necessary in order to remember correctly.

Violence: Heavy / Profanity: Heavy / Sex/Nudity: Minor

See list of Relevant Issues—questions-and-answers.

Viewer CommentsSend your comments
Positive—Reading other viewer comments prior to seeing this movie, I wasn’t sure I would be able to sit through the whole thing. I did, and it was a riveting and fascinating movie about how the CIA finally caught up with Bin Laden. The torture and the language were the objectionable aspects of the movie. The torture, at least for the first half of the movie, was a graphic portrayal, and for those easily troubled by scenes of torture, I wouldn’t recommend this movie. There was also profanity included throughout; I would assume to add to the “realism”. While I don’t like movies with profanity —I guess because I was expecting some, and this was probably the language actually used—I didn’t feel the profanity was gratuitous in this film.

Of course, there was also violence, but you couldn’t tell this story without the violence (it was the mission to kill or capture Bin Laden). Overall, a good telling of the story, but the offensive elements are definitely there, as well. I would recommend seeing this movie to learn about what really happened, and the courage of our CIA agents and military, if you are not easily offended by the offensive elements of the film.
My Ratings: Moral rating: Offensive / Moviemaking quality: 5
John, age 39 (USA)
Positive—The question raised by this movie is when do the ends justify the means. It is a very scary movie. Our government did in fact torture people, and the film does not sugar coat or glorify this. The government did so to gather information about the al Qaeda people it was making war against. Later on, it sends elite military with high tech weapons to kill men and women. The children are not killed, but are terrorized. In fact, in the war depicted, many children have been killed, sometimes called collateral damage. They are doing it to al Qaeda today, but where will they stop and why?

Christians should recognize that Jesus is overwhelmingly against violence. Love your enemies. Put away your swords. See all »
My Ratings: Moral rating: Average / Moviemaking quality: 4
Stanley Hirtle, age 73 (USA)
Neutral—I think this is my first neutral! For me to give a film the “Positive” rate, I must feel that I was engaged on each element of the movie. At least to some degree. Plot, timing, Characters, dialog, screen adaptation, setting, special effects etc. I just can’t say the scales tipped that far for “Zero Dark Thirty.” The timing of the movie kept a good pace, considering they were squeezing a decade into about 2½ hours. The audience is taken by leaps and jumps through many years and tragic events, that, on their own were each very horrific. I find that they can be muddled together over time, due to desensitivity on my part. To my shame, names of “individuals” and their sacrifices have blended into the acts of terror-as if they are all one in the same. The movie takes the time to spotlight a few, and helps us remember. That is one of the “engaging” points.

On the opposite side—in spite of the fact that I know Jessica Chastain may well walk away with the Oscar®, I felt her character to be devoid of any aspect that would draw me in, and I would find interesting. As a matter of fact, the character seemed one dimensional. Barely changing in appearance over a decade, and only a bit more out spoken. When asked questions such as “What about friends?” or later “You do know why we brought you in” (paraphrase), no answer is given. I needed to know these answers! Any answer, about who she was and what she was thinking, feeling or experiencing. Few, perhaps as low as one, of the main characters, were interesting. (And he was doing all the torturing, but you wondered “How can it come so easy for him?) That was one of the “non-engaging” aspects.

The interrogation scenes early in the film, the many discussions with different groups, the throwing around of names and subtle gestures between characters about their targets, at times felt choppy, disjointed or made you think “huh”? I appreciated the last 20-30 minutes, and I hope it was as accurate as has been rumored. That in itself is a good study for much older teens and up. As a nation, we saw each other through a very tough time. Our men and woman in uniform have carried out the leg work. They were shown and represented well in the movie. I am grateful for that. It will be interesting to see what the Academy does with this one at the Oscars. I saw it once, that was enough.
My Ratings: Moral rating: Offensive / Moviemaking quality: 4
Dorell Proshek, age 52 (USA)
Neutral—There was violence in the movie, but it wasn’t over the top, and there is no blood. A terrorist is tortured at the beginning, but it was mostly psychological torture (sleep deprivation and humiliation). There is a very brief scene of waterboarding, but, from what I understand, this technique is much more brutal and lengthy in real life. While these scenes are a bit intense, it is not like a “Saw” movie, where an innocent person is being graphically tortured by someone who just enjoys inflicting pain; and it certainly does not promote torture, as it produces essentially no useful information.

There were also a few explosions, but again no blood. And it ends with the assassination of Bin Laden (I doubt that is a spoiler, unless you have been living under a rock). The biggest concern is the language. I think the writer of the above review under-reported the amount of profanity. While I realize it is a pretty accurate portrayal of the military (after all, the cliché “cursing like sailors” is a cliché, for a reason), I found the language distracting and unnecessary. If the language does not bother you, though, it was a well produced movie and does a good job of depicting the painstaking search for the #1 criminal of the 21st century.
My Ratings: Moral rating: Offensive / Moviemaking quality: 4½
Jon, age 30 (USA)
Negative—I am 66, served in Nam as an artillery section chief, and while in Nam discovered the truth of the Bible, but did not commit my life to Christ until much later. I am a fan of the movies, especially since I can find most of the ones I want to see at the local independent video store, or I buy them on Amazon, expecting to pass them on to my sons, so they can see the best of what’s out there and note the standards. My favorites run the gamut from Dickens to Peckingbah.

Though I agree with the movie reviews of the quality of the movie production, I still believe it is boring and agree that the f-bombs are offensive. I applaud the director’s work with the acting and dialog, but had some doubts about the female lead. Why a woman? Was it really a man? Why have we not heard of her before this movie?

Too much emphasis on the “torture,” at least 45 minutes rubbing our face in water boarding and dialog like “If you lie, I hurt you.” If the dialog is real, fine, but how do we know that? It was rare to hear this talk when I was in a combat zone, and that was all men. One did not get promoted, if he constantly cursed and swore. It shows a limited mind. But of course it is useful in an honest context when no other words emphasize the feelings for a particular situation but sparingly, and perhaps not in public or large groups-once out of our mouths these words can’t be taken back.

I can see committed Christians putting their money elsewhere, one does not really learn anything about the capture of Usama he could not read in a news article, but without the raw language and in your face torture.
My Ratings: Moral rating: Offensive / Moviemaking quality: 3½
Jay, age 66 (USA)
Negative—I absolutely hated it. The beginning was kind of interesting, but after the two female and one of the male leads who was the head of the CIA started to take over the screen time, I felt like I was watching children pretending to be adults by using foul language. I have never left a theater as angry I was when I left this movie.

I definitely felt vulnerable to the spirit of the actors, at some points, if that makes sense, and it wasn’t the kind of spirit that seemed productive or encouraging. I guess the best way to describe it is, I was watching total strangers do things that I wouldn’t do for reasons that don’t motivate me, but sort of felt like their presence was interfering with the way that I view life from my Christian perspective. So I walked out.
My Ratings: Moral rating: Very Offensive / Moviemaking quality: 2½
Jeremy, age 26 (USA)
Negative—The reviewer of this movie must have a mind that, I think, is sand papered. F-words no longer bother him. He had a morally average rating. Excuse me, I made a big mistake reading his review and because he said morally average I took my wife. Needless to say being married to a Jesus loving Christian, she correctly walked out of the movie. This time I did not join her to see and then write this review.

OKAY, let’s just say that the number of f-words was I estimate was more than 25 times. It seemed like 500 to my wife. Totally not one f-word was needed to artistically show the intensity of this subject. Now, if all the real life CIA employees really curse and cuss that much, as this movie depicts, they all should be fired for being so morally reprehensible.

It’s like that other Ben Affleck’s “Argo” movie that just came out that I would not see because the reviewer on Christian Spotlight said there was vastly too many f-words. It was bad enough see that the “Lincoln” movie and hearing the Lincoln character in the movie use the f-words. Disgusting! Movie quality and overall story line? Excellent, but don’t see it until it comes on TV with all the f-words taken out.
My Ratings: Moral rating: Extremely Offensive / Moviemaking quality: 4½
Robert Garcia, age 65 (USA)
Comments from non-viewers
Negative—I tried to watch this movie out of interest to see how we went after the terrorist. I saw about 30 minutes of it, and it was explicit torture and cursing, including seeing the guy hanging there from the back without his pants on. It was brutal abuse and torture. There is no point to watch all of that stuff and put that in my mind. I chose to turn it off. Keep in mind, I do watch the Bourne type movies, so I am used to action and violence from that perspective, but this was outright grotesque torture.
Samantha, age 38 (USA)
Neutral—I am a fan of our military. I have a good friend and frat brother who was Special Forces in the late ‘90s. I don’t plan to see this movie. Be careful what you allow into your psyche. Do you want to have scenes of torture on your mind? I think believers need to be careful about what they see. Wait for the TV version.
David, age 47 (USA)

PLEASE share your observations and insights to be posted here.