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Still shot from the movie: Zero Dark Thirty.

Zero Dark Thirty

After a decade of searching for Osama bin Laden, this dramatized film attempts to offer a behind-the-scenes look at the manhunt for the al-Qaeda terrorist who lead the 9/11 attacks on America.

Overall Grade: C+
Violence: D
Sexual Content: B
Language: D
Drugs/Alcohol: C
Release Date: 03 Jan 2013
Run Time: 157
MPAA Rating: R

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In-Depth Review

The identities of the tight knit group of CIA agents and military personnel responsible for completing the mission that ended in the death of Osama bin Laden are known to very few. Yet somehow director Kathryn Bigelow and screenwriter Mark Boal managed to meet with some unnamed key people, including one woman who was integral in tracking down the most wanted man on the planet.

The script supplies this female with the name Maya (played by Jessica Chastain). She begins her decade-long hunt for bin Laden shortly after the 9/11 attacks when she is sent to the Middle East to assist agents already on the hunt for any shred of information. Our first introduction to Maya is at a CIA “black site” where she witnesses “enhanced interrogation” first hand when a captured terrorist financier (Reda Kateb) is water boarded (an infamous torture technique) by a senior agent named Dan (Jason Clarke). It appears that Maya is somewhat bothered by this at first, but she quickly comes up to the expectations of the agency when the prisoner, naked below the waist after defecating (rear nudity is seen), begs her for help. Her reply: “You can help yourself by being truthful.”

And so begins Maya’s quest. With each passing year her involvement becomes deeper, her determination looks increasingly like obsession, and her demeanor gets more hardened. Like a locomotive on a straight track cutting across the desert, we follow this agent through the major terrorist events of the decade. A double-decker bus explodes in London in 2005. The Marriot Hotel in Islamabad Pakistan craters when a huge explosive is detonated in 2008. Finally a bomb goes off inside a CIA base after agents instruct the guards to stand down and let a car carrying a man, whom they thought was a trusted informant, inside.

It appears all their efforts are in vain until Maya pours over some old files and notices a lead everyone thought was dead. A few contacts later, plus a phone number bought with a new Lamborghini, and the aggressive agent is convinced she has found the bin Laden residence in a small city in Pakistan.

In spite of its long running time, this movie moves along quickly and leaves little time for breathing. It’s also not a movie for those who would prefer not to view scenes of torture, bomb blasts that results in bloodied bodies, as well as a scene of military personnel on a secret mission entering a home and shooting key individuals while children look on in horror. You can expect dozens of sexual expletives and a variety of other profanities too.

Perhaps the biggest question this movie raises is how accurate is this story? In an interview with CBS News, director Kathryn Bigelow claims she has “first hand” sources on many of the movie’s details, but adds she never requested nor was aware that she received classified information. The additional fact that members of the American Congress are calling for investigations into whether restricted data was shared with the filmmakers implies that what we see is relatively accurate. (This political scuffle will also surely be a marketing coup for the movie’s promotion.)

A product of a culture that can’t wait to turn yesterday’s news into today’s cinematic spectacle, Zero Dark Thirty is a well-crafted production that has garnered attention from parties ranging from government oversight boards to Hollywood awards circles. Possibly suitable only for the oldest and most mature teens and adult audiences, it captures a pivotal moment in a story that only the shortsighted would say is over.

Note: Zero Dark Thirty ( which means 30 minutes after midnight in military jargon) opened in limited release on December 19, 2012. The film opens in a wide release on January 11, 2013.

Content Details: Beyond the Movie Ratings...

Violence: We see a man being tortured by CIA agents who use water-boarding techniques (while he is held down a cloth is placed over his face and water is poured on the cloth, causing him to choke). Later, with a female agent present, his pants are removed and an agent teases him about defecating. He is left hanging by his arms while naked from the waist down (rear nudity seen). Other scenes show detainees being interrogated while physically bound, but without the explicit details. Bomb blasts in three scenes leave people with bloody injuries. Militants enter a building and begin shooting people at random. During a military operation, personnel enter a home seeking a key individual; a few other people are shot while horrified women and children look on. Frequent verbal altercations occur, including demeaning remarks intended to extract information from detainees. A man is forced to wear a dog collar and walk like a dog.

Sexual Content: During a torture scene a man is seen naked from the rear.

Language: Frequent use of sexual expletives, as well as other scatological and general profanities.

Drugs/Alcohol: Frequent cigarette use throughout. Some drinking is depicted.

Discussion Ideas: Talk About the Movie...

How do you feel about the timing of this movie’s release? Are there issues in creating movies about real world events so soon after they happen? Do you think this movie would be classified as fiction or non-fiction? How can you know for sure? What are the risks of facts being distorted in a movie of this nature?

In an interview with CBS News, director Kathryn Bigelow corrects an interviewer who uses the word “torture” with the term “enhanced interrogation.” Does this remark reveal anything about Bigelow’s attitude toward the use of these techniques to extract information? Do you think it reveals anything about her attitude about the CIA?

You can read a detailed account of the real operation in the UK newspaper “The Guardian”: http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2012/oct/12/death-osama-bin-laden-us

For more information of the people and events that inspired this movie, click here:

Osama bin Laden: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Osama_bin_Laden

al-Qaeda: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Al-Qaeda

9/11 Attacks: http://www.history.com/topics/9-11-timeline

Death of Osama bin Laden: http://www.historyinanhour.com/2012/03/10/osama-bin-laden/

Video alternatives

Several movies have been made about the tragic day in September 2001 including Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, United 93 and World Trade Center.

Home Video Notes

Home Video Notes: Zero Dark Thirty

Release Date: 19 March 2013

Zero Dark Thirty releases to home video (Blu-ray/DVD/Ultraviolet Digital Copy) with the following extras:

- No Small Feat - Making Zero Dark Thirty

- The Compound - Tour the film’s rebuilt compound

- Geared Up - Watch the cast train with authentic SEAL gear

- Targeting Jessica Chastain - A look at the role of Maya

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About the Reviewer: Rod Gustafson

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