A lot or a little?
The parents' guide to what's in this movie.
What 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.
Talk to your kids 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?
- In theaters: December 19, 2012
- On DVD or streaming: March 19, 2013
- Cast: Jason Clarke, Jennifer Ehle, Jessica Chastain, Joel Edgerton
- Director: Kathryn Bigelow
- Studio: Columbia Pictures
- Genre: Drama
- Topics: History
- Run time: 157 minutes
- MPAA rating: R
- MPAA explanation: strong violence including brutal disturbing images, and for language
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