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Plot, Themes, and Features of “Zero Dark Thirty”

The film Zero Dark Thirty released in 2012, was directed by Kathryn Bigelow and starred Jessica Chastain and Jason Clarke in leading roles. The film tells the narrative around the international manhunt for Osama Bin Laden lasting for years and the eventual famous raid by US Navy SEALs that resulted in the terrorist’s death. Told from the perspective of a fictional CIA analyst Maya who specializes in Middle Eastern culture and politics, the plot recounts the difficult job that the CIA had to do after the Al-Qaeda attacks on 9/11 to find those responsible while providing intelligence support to various US operations in the region (Bigelow, 2012). It touches upon various controversial topics, such as US involvement and manipulation in foreign affairs and the use of enhanced interrogation techniques or torture by the CIA to derive critical information.

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Kathryn Bigelow is a well-known female director in Hollywood, previously best recognized for her work on The Hurt Locker, also a film about the war in the Middle East, but has made movies in a wide range of genres. Similar to The Hurt Locker, which had 9 Academy Awards nominations, for Zero Dark Thirty, Bigelow once again collaborated with Mark Boal on writing the screenplay. The screenplay was shelved several times, and eventually, after the capture of Osama Bin Laden in 2011, it had to undergo major rewriting. Bigelow is known for redefining genre expectations with her kinetic and intense style of filmmaking, which could be seen in Zero Dark Thirty. She seeks to create films with a tremendous impact which she does through the effective use of sensual and visceral imagery in order to confront societal issues and explore the psyche of the protagonist. Violence in some form is often present in Bigelow’s films, but it is used not for glorification but for the reaction and impact on audiences, seeking to generate realistic and deep emotion.

The theme of the film revolves around objectively but passionately demonstrating this covert, ‘shadow’ war that went behind the scenes of the actual fighting on the ground in Iraq and Afghanistan that most people knew about. The movie sought to emphasize that real war and decision-making were driven in the background, where corruption, lack of ethics, and deceit are consistently present from both sides of the conflict. The film only has a few action scenes and most often delves deeply into the gritty analyst work of the protagonist. However, it remains incredibly tense because from the early stages of the film, the viewer is shown how much is at stake, how the competency or lack thereof by these agents can result in lives saved or lost, and geopolitical implications for whole countries based on the information that is provided. The tone of the film largely reflects this status quo and tensions. It is dark, gritty, and ‘down to earth.’ While being a dramatization of events, it reflects the grim reality of many of the topics starting from the isolation, secrecy, and long hours of CIA agents to the brutality and absolute inhumanity of using torture, even if it led to critical information. It is one of the film’s most important underlying themes; what are the tradeoffs when it comes to this work and policies covertly promoted by the US on the international stage?

The art direction of the film aims to be ultra-realistic, being set in a variety of countries and locations. The set locations are depicted relatively accurately or, at the least, match the expectations of what it would look like based on context and location. It is edited in a chronological timeline, showing the progression of the plot and the protagonist developing and growing with time. This is also supported by the amazing acting of Jessica Chastain, whose character goes from a relative newcomer to the CIA office in the Middle East to eventually being the lead analyst who discovers the information leading to bin Laden’s capture. She introduces slight changes in demeanor and interactions with others that reflect her emotional state as the film progresses, as she makes more sacrifices, hits dead ends, and sometimes loses people she had known to the war. The film is supported by visual editing of special effects and panoramic shots as well as an emotional soundtrack by Alexandre Desplat, who hits on the tones of the narrative’s mood without overwhelming the viewing experience.

With Zero Dark Thirty, the filmmakers are attempting to retell a story of true events with some dramatization and focus. The real-life hunt for bin Laden included hundreds of analysts studying years of materials and interviewing hundreds, and it genuinely took more than a decade to complete the mission. The film converges all this in the face of Maya as the protagonist, representing the struggles, frustrations, and sacrifices made by everyone involved. While the film was accused of being politically biased, it remains objective and reflects the facts. Many saw it as a glorification of the CIA’s torture program, but in reality, it highlights that it is not effective.

The film did what it was intended to do in a highly thrilling and interesting manner; it did so by constantly upping the tension. Despite most viewers well-aware that bin Laden had been killed in the end, the movie presents the so-called ‘thrill of the chase, which is increasingly appealing to the audience. In the end, it was worth the effort because the movie did tell the story of the intelligence operation, doing so in a classy and objective way. Considered to be one of the best films of the decade, it eternalizes in cinema one of the most dramatic and geopolitically important moments of US history while honoring those agencies and individuals that were involved.


Bigelow, K. (Director). (2012). Zero Dark Thirty [Film]. Universal Pictures. Columbia Pictures.

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