Zero Dark Thirty is a 2012 American thriller film directed by Kathryn Bigelow and written by Mark Boal.
The film dramatises the nearly decade-long international manhunt for Al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden after the September 11 attacks.
This search leads to the discovery of his compound in Pakistan and the military raid that resulted in bin Laden’s death on 02 May 2011.
Jessica Chastain stars as Maya, a fictional CIA intelligence analyst, with Jason Clarke, Joel Edgerton, Mark Strong, James Gandolfini, Kyle Chandler, Stephen Dillane, Chris Pratt, Édgar Ramírez, Fares Fares, Jennifer Ehle, John Barrowman, Mark Duplass, and Frank Grillo in supporting roles.
Maya is a CIA analyst tasked with finding the al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden. In 2003, she is stationed at the US embassy in Pakistan. She and CIA officer Dan attend the black site interrogations of Ammar, a detainee with suspected links to several of the hijackers in the September 11 attacks and who is subjected to approved torture interrogation techniques. Ammar provides unreliable information on a suspected attack in Saudi Arabia, but reveals the name of the personal courier for bin Laden, Abu Ahmed al-Kuwaiti. Other detainee intelligence connects courier traffic by Abu Ahmed between Abu Faraj al-Libbi (Yoav Levi) and bin Laden. In 2005, Faraj denies knowing about a courier named Abu Ahmed; Maya interprets this as an attempt by Faraj to conceal the importance of Abu Ahmed.
In 2009, during the Camp Chapman attack, Maya’s fellow officer and friend Jessica (Jennifer Ehle) is killed by a suicide bomber. A case manager that liked the Abu Ahmed lead shares with her an interrogation with a Jordanian detainee claiming to have buried Abu Ahmed in 2001. Maya learns what the CIA was told five years earlier: Ibrahim Sayeed traveled under the name of Abu Ahmed al-Kuwaiti. Realising her lead may be alive, Maya contacts Dan, now a senior officer at the CIA headquarters. She speculates that the CIA’s photograph of Ahmed is that of his brother, Habeeb, who was killed in Afghanistan. Maya says that their beards and native clothes make the brothers look alike, explaining the account of Ahmed’s “death” in 2001.
A Kuwaiti prince trades the phone number of Sayeed’s mother for a Lamborghini Gallardo Bicolore. Maya and her CIA team in Pakistan use electronic methods to eventually pinpoint a caller in a moving vehicle who exhibits behaviors that delay confirmation of his identity (which Maya calls tradecraft, thus confirming that the subject is likely a senior courier). They track the vehicle to a large urban compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan, near the Pakistan Military Academy. After gunmen attack Maya while she is in her vehicle, she is recalled to Washington, D.C. as her cover is believed blown.
The CIA puts the compound under surveillance, but obtains no conclusive identification of bin Laden. The President’s National Security Advisor tasks the CIA with creating a plan to capture or kill bin Laden. Before briefing President Barack Obama, the CIA director, (James Gandolfini) , holds a meeting of his senior officers, who estimate that bin Laden is 60–80% likely to be in the compound. Maya, also in the meeting, places her confidence at 100%.
On 02 May 2011, the 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment flies two stealth helicopters from Afghanistan into Pakistan with members of DEVGRU and the CIA’s SAC/SOG to raid the compound. The SEALs gain entry and kill a number of people in the compound, including whom they believe is bin Laden. At a US base in Jalalabad, Afghanistan, Maya confirms the identity of the corpse.
She boards a military transport back to the US, the sole passenger. She is asked where she wants to go and begins to cry.
- Jessica Chastain as Maya, a CIA intelligence analyst.
- Partially inspired by Alfreda Frances Bikowsky.
- Jason Clarke as Dan, a CIA intelligence officer.
- Jennifer Ehle as Jessica, a senior CIA analyst.
- Mark Strong as George, a senior CIA supervisor.
- Kyle Chandler as Joseph Bradley, Islamabad CIA Station Chief.
- James Gandolfini as CIA Director Leon Panetta.
- Harold Perrineau as Jack, a CIA analyst.
- Mark Duplass as Steve, a CIA analyst.
- Fredric Lehne as ‘The Wolf’, a CIA section chief.
- John Barrowman as Jeremy, a CIA executive.
- Jessie Collins as Debbie, a CIA analyst.
- Édgar Ramírez as Larry, a CIA SAD/SOG operative.
- Fares Fares as Hakim, a CIA SAD/SOG operative.
- Scott Adkins as John, a CIA SAD/SOG operative.
- Jessica Chastain as Maya, a CIA intelligence analyst.
- US Navy
- Joel Edgerton as Patrick, DEVGRU (SEAL Team 6) team leader.
- Chris Pratt as Justin, DEVGRU operator.
- Possibly based on real operator, Robert O’Neill.
- Callan Mulvey as Saber, DEVGRU operator.
- Possibly based on real operator, Mark Owen, author of No Easy Day.
- Taylor Kinney as Jared, DEVGRU operator.
- Mike Colter as Mike, DEVGRU operator.
- Frank Grillo as DEVGRU Commanding officer.
- Christopher Stanley as JSOC Commander Vice Admiral Bill McRaven.
- Stephen Dillane as National Security Advisor Tom Donilon.
- Mark Valley as C-130 pilot.
- John Schwab as Deputy National Security Advisor.
- Reda Kateb as Ammar.
- Homayoun Ershadi as Hassan Ghul.
- Yoav Levi as Abu Farraj al-Libbi.
- Ricky Sekhon as Osama bin Laden.
The film’s working title was For God and Country. The title Zero Dark Thirty was officially confirmed at the end of the film’s teaser trailer. Bigelow has explained that “it’s a military term for 30 minutes after midnight, and it refers also to the darkness and secrecy that cloaked the entire decade-long mission.”
Bigelow and Boal had initially worked on and finished a screenplay centered on the December 2001 Battle of Tora Bora, and the long, unsuccessful efforts to find Osama bin Laden in the region. The two were about to begin filming when news broke that bin Laden had been killed.
They immediately shelved the film they had been working on and redirected their focus, essentially starting from scratch. “But a lot of the homework I’d done for the first script and a lot of the contacts I made, carried over,” Boal remarked during an interview with Entertainment Weekly. He added, “The years I had spent talking to military and intelligence operators involved in counter-terrorism was helpful in both projects. Some of the sourcing I had developed long, long ago continued to be helpful for this version.”
Along with painstakingly recreating the historic night-vision raid on the Abbottabad compound, the script and the film stress the little-reported role of the tenacious young female CIA officer who tracked down Osama bin Laden. Screenwriter Boal said that while researching for the film, “I heard through the grapevine that women played a big role in the CIA in general and in this team. I heard that a woman was there on the night of the raid as one of the CIA’s liaison officers on the ground – and that was the start of it.” He then turned up stories about a young case officer who was recruited out of college, who had spent her entire career chasing bin Laden. Maya’s tough-minded, monomaniacal persona, Boal said, is “based on a real person, but she also represents the work of a lot of other women.” In December 2014 Jane Mayer of The New Yorker wrote that “Maya” was modeled in part after CIA officer Alfreda Frances Bikowsky.
Parts of the film were shot at PEC University of Technology in Chandigarh, India. Some parts of Chandigarh were designed to look like Lahore and Abbottabad in Pakistan, where Osama bin Laden was found and killed on 02 May 2011. Parts of the film were shot in Mani Majra. Local members of Hindu nationalist parties protested, expressing anti-bin Laden and anti-Pakistan sentiments as they objected to Pakistani locations being portrayed on Indian soil. For a lone scene shot in Poland, the city of Gdańsk was reportedly offended for depicting it as a location for the CIA’s clandestine and dark operations.
National security expert Peter Bergen, who reviewed an early cut of the film as an unpaid adviser, said at the time that the film’s torture scenes “were overwrought”. Boal said they were “toned down” in the final cut.
Alexandre Desplat composed and conducted the film’s score. The score, performed by the London Symphony Orchestra, was released as a soundtrack album by Madison Gate Records on 19 December 2012.
Electronic Arts promoted Zero Dark Thirty in its video game Medal of Honor: Warfighter by offering downloadable maps of locations depicted in the film. Additional maps for the game were made available on December 19, to coincide with the film’s initial release. Electronic Arts donates $1 to nonprofit organisations that support veterans for each Zero Dark Thirty map pack sold.
The limited release of Zero Dark Thirty grossed $417,150 in the United States and Canada in only five theatres. A wide release followed on 11 January.
Entertainment Weekly wrote, “The controversial Oscar contender easily topped the chart in its first weekend of wide release with $24.4 million.” Zero Dark Thirty grossed $95,720,716 in the US and Canada, along with $37,100,000 in other countries, for a worldwide total of $132,820,716. It was the top-grossing film of its wide release premiere weekend.
Zero Dark Thirty was nominated for five Academy Awards at the 85th Academy Awards: Best Picture, Best Actress, Best Original Screenplay, Best Sound Editing and Best Film Editing. Paul N. J. Ottosson won the Academy Award for Best Sound Editing, tying with Skyfall. This was only the sixth tie in Academy Awards history, and the first since 1994. Zero Dark Thirty was nominated for four Golden Globe Awards at the 70th Golden Globe Awards, including Best Motion Picture – Drama, Best Director, Best Screenplay, with Chastain winning Best Actress – Motion Picture Drama.
The Washington D.C. Area Film Critics Association’s award for Best Director was given to Bigelow, the second time the honor has gone to a woman (the first also being Bigelow for The Hurt Locker). The film swept critics groups’ awards for Best Director and Best Picture including the Washington D.C., New York Film Critics Online, Chicago and Boston film critics associations.
Zero Dark Thirty was released on DVD and Blu-ray Disc on 19 March 2013.
Writer Boal has stated his interest in making the original film on the 2001 Tora Bora hunt for bin Laden that he and Bigelow conceived. That finished screenplay had been set aside after bin Laden was killed in 2011 to focus on what became Zero Dark Thirty. “I love reporting, so being on a big story is really exciting to me,” said Boal, a former war journalist, of his scramble to write a new script after the event. “But nobody likes to throw out two years of work.”
Zero Dark Thirty has received criticism for historical inaccuracy. Former Assistant Secretary of Defense Graham T. Allison has opined that the film is inaccurate in three important regards: the overstatement of the positive role of enhanced interrogation methods, the understatement of the role of the Obama administration, and the portrayal of the efforts as being driven by one agent battling against the CIA “system”.
On 21 May 2015, journalist Seymour Hersh reported that the Pakistani Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) had kept bin Laden under house arrest at Abbottabad since 2006, and that Pakistani Army chief Pervez Kayani and ISI director Ahmad Shuja Pasha aided the US mission to kill, not capture bin Laden. Hersh’s US and Pakistani intelligence sources stated that the US had learned of bin Laden’s location through an ISI walk-in seeking the $25 million reward and not through tracking a courier; this had been previously reported by R.J. Hillhouse and was afterward partly supported by NBC News. The White House denied Hersh’s report.
- Zero Dark Thirty received acclaim and appeared on 95 critics’ top ten lists of 2012.
- It was nominated in five categories at the 85th Academy Awards, including Best Picture, Best Actress for Chastain, Best Original Screenplay, and Best Film Editing, and won the award for Best Sound Editing, shared with Skyfall.
- It also earned Golden Globe Award nominations for Best Motion Picture – Drama, Best Director, and Best Screenplay, with Chastain winning the award for Best Actress in a Motion Picture – Drama.
- The depiction of so-called “enhanced interrogation” generated controversy, with some critics describing it as pro-torture propaganda, as the interrogations are shown producing reliably useful and accurate information.
- Acting CIA director Michael Morell felt the film created the false impression that torture was key to finding bin Laden.
- Others described it as an anti-torture exposure of interrogation practices.
- Republican Congressman Peter T. King charged that the filmmakers were given improper access to classified materials, which they denied.
- An unreleased draft IG report published by the Project on Government Oversight, in June 2013, stated that former CIA Director Leon Panetta discussed classified information during an awards ceremony for the SEAL team that carried out the raid on the bin Laden compound.
- Unbeknown to Panetta, screenwriter Boal was among the 1,300 present during the ceremony.
Production & Filming Details
- Director(s): Kathryn Bigelow.
- Producer(s): Kathryn Bigelow, Mark Boal, and Megan Ellison.
- Writer(s): Mark Boal.
- Music: Alexandre Desplat.
- Cinematography: Greig Fraser.
- Editor(s): Dylan Tichenor and William Goldenberg.
- Production: Columbia Pictures, First Light Productions, and Annapurna Pictures.
- Distributor(s): Sony Pictures Releasing.
- Release Date: 19 December 2012 (US).
- Running Time: 157 minutes.
- Rating: 15/Rated.
- Country: US.
- Language: English.