Zero Dark Thirty Movie Poster Image

Zero Dark Thirty

Intelligent, uncompromising drama is violent and complex.
Parents recommendPopular with kids
  • Rated: R
  • Genre: Drama
  • Release Year: 2012
  • Running Time: 157 minutes

What parents need to know

Positive messages

The movie's messages are complicated (all the better to inspire in-depth discussions among grown-ups and older teens). At particular issue is some of the violence -- i.e. the use of torture. The movie approaches these difficult topics thoughtfully, allowing viewers to interpret them for themselves.

Positive role models

The main character is a tough, smart, persistent woman who spends years trying to achieve a nearly impossible goal and eventually accomplishes it. Yet that goal, and the methods she employs to achieve it, definitely dilute her heroism. But she's an enormously strong character with many shades of gray and well worth thinking about.


Several scenes of torture and severe interrogation techniques, including "waterboarding" and humiliation (a man's pants are stripped off). Also one or two intense battle sequences with guns, shooting, dead bodies, and blood. Bombs are set off, with injuries and casualties. Frequent tension/peril. The main female character is involved in -- and sometimes the victim of -- several violent situations.


Some male prisoners are stripped of their clothes, but nothing more than naked behinds are shown. One brief scene takes place in a nightclub with sexy dancing girls (not naked). A good deal of spoken sexual innuendo throughout.


Very strong and quite frequent. Words include "f--k" and "motherf---er," "s--t," "a--hole," "ass," "bitch," "damn," "hell," and "d--k," plus "goddamn" and "oh my God."


Coke and Budweiser brands are shown and/or mentioned.

Drinking, drugs, & smoking

Characters both major and minor are often shown smoking cigarettes or drinking alcohol (beer, wine, etc.) in a background way.

Parents Need to Know

Parents need to know that Zero Dark Thirty is a combination war movie, thriller, and docudrama about the intense, years-long hunt for Osama bin Laden following the 9/11 attacks, from the filmmakers behind The Hurt Locker. Perhaps the movie's most controversial element is its depiction of "waterboarding" and torturing prisoners for information. The movie shows this process as simultaneously effective and repellent. Overall, violence is strong -- not just in the torture sequences, but also in various other gun/shooting sequences, with dead bodies and lots of blood. But because the violence encourages interpretation and isn't just gratuitous, older teens should be able to handle it within the movie's context as an intelligent, complex story that's sure to inspire passionate discussion. Language is strong, with uses of "f--k" and "s--t," as well as sexual innuendo and some partial, nonsexual nudity. Characters are often seen smoking cigarettes or drinking in a background way.

What's the story?

Following the 9/11 attacks on the United States, a CIA agent named Maya (Jessica Chastain) steps up the hunt for international terrorist Osama bin Laden. She witnesses the torture and "waterboarding" of one of bin Laden's underlings (possibly a nephew). And, over the next decade, the single-minded Maya follows many dead leads, loses many colleagues, and witnesses some devastating terrorist attacks. Yet even in her most painful defeats, she rarely wavers. She believes she has been spared from death to finish the job. Finally, she comes up with some fuzzy, tentative information as to where bin Laden may be hiding and, based on not much more than a strong hunch, launches her final attack.

Is it any good?


Another filmmaker might have turned this material into either an exciting thriller or a serious condemnation of the whole brutal affair; director Kathryn Bigelow does both at the same time. Her unique insight into violence has been the hallmark of her entire remarkable career, and ZERO DARK THIRTY is perhaps the most complex and ambitious of all her films to date.

Bigelow's steadfastly apolitical movie asks the audience to consider both the usefulness and the horror of "waterboarding," both before and after it's outlawed. But that controversial element is only a small part of the greater whole. The movie follows the outline of a true-crime procedural, but with many more dead ends than successes, it takes on a certain tragic tone. Bigelow includes little moments of rest and pause to humanize and refocus her heroine. Then, the film's final 40-minute attack sequence -- and its aftermath -- is a tour de force. Zero Dark Thirty is a towering achievement.

Families can talk about...

  • Families can talk about Zero Dark Thirty's violence. What's the impact of the torture scenes? How are they different from the climactic invasion sequence? From the opening depiction of 9/11? How does the movie challenge viewers to think about all these different forms of violence?

  • What keeps Maya doing this job -- hunting for little clues that may lead to Osama bin Laden -- for so many years? Is she a role model? Is she worth rooting for?

  • How can Zero Dark Thirty be labeled? How would you describe it to your friends? Is a movie that's difficult to label better than one that's easy to label?

Movie details

Theatrical release date:December 19, 2012
DVD/Streaming release date:March 19, 2013
Cast:Jason Clarke, Jennifer Ehle, Jessica Chastain, Joel Edgerton
Director:Kathryn Bigelow
Studio:Columbia Pictures
Run time:157 minutes
MPAA rating:R
MPAA explanation:strong violence including brutal disturbing images, and for language

This review of Zero Dark Thirty was written by

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Teen, 14 years old Written bymovie loving teen January 9, 2013

6th Best Movie of 2012

I really enjoyed this movie for its attention to detail and intensity to the situation. It is #6 in my favorites behind #5: Argo, #4: Skyfall, #3: Django Unchained, #2: The Dark Knight Rises, #1: Looper Which I also recommend to all. This contains pretty Strong Brutal Violence and Graphic Language especially the last 40 minutes. This has tons of mature themes and content including tourture and unexpected bombings. If you can't handle very intense materiel stay away.
What other families should know
Great role models
Too much violence
Too much swearing
Parent of a 17, 17, and 18+ year old Written byDadIV January 13, 2013

Great Movie and no political slant

Just saw this with my wife. We both agreed that the torture scenes are a bit intense but milder than many action flicks and not as bad as some media portrayed. It made us discuss both the benefits of it and how bad it is at the same time. No over-dramatization of 911 or the military action. The movie is a bit long (my wife thought) but retained my interest all the way through. Seemed to show what would be intelligent reality in the pursuit of Bin Laden, extreme hard work by very intelligent and dedicated people. And intelligence by the terrorist.
Teen, 13 years old Written byThe Cheap Seats January 20, 2013

The Greatest Manhunt in History

Easily one of the best films of 2012. Jessica Chastain's performance is flawless and the supporting cast is great. I don't understand all the flak that Bigelow is getting about this because the torture scenes weren't too lengthy or graphic. Her direction is excellent, especially in the final scene where instead of making tons of commotion on screen and having obnoxious shaky cam, she lets the tension hang in the air with the power of silence and still keeps you on the edge of your seat. One of the most well-made movies I've ever seen. There is some nudity for about a minute or two when a man is being tortured and his bare backside is seen. Violence could be an issue because there is a few scenes with intense close range shooting but that is very infrequent. Suicide bombers are seen twice from aerial views. The f-word is thrown around about maybe twenty times, and about ten uses of s--t. Alcohol is seen being consumed various times. Positive role models are in Zero Dark Thirty, though, because Maya is a strong woman who does a job that primarily consists of men, better than most men, a lot like Kathryn Bigelow. A.
What other families should know
Great role models
Too much violence
Too much sex
Too much swearing
Too much drinking/drugs/smoking