Zero Dark Thirty

Movie review by
Jeffrey M. Anderson, Common Sense Media
Zero Dark Thirty Movie Poster Image
Parents recommendPopular with kids
Intelligent, uncompromising drama is violent and complex.
  • R
  • 2012
  • 157 minutes

Parents say

age 16+
Based on 9 reviews

Kids say

age 15+
Based on 26 reviews

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A lot or a little?

The parents' guide to what's in this movie.

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 & Representations

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.

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.

User Reviews

  • Parents say
  • Kids say
Parent of a 14-year-old Written byvkumar3908 June 29, 2013

Thought provoking movie!

Whatan outstanding movie, one of the best. Because of Bin Ladens recent death, teens will be aching to go see this drama. But the coarse language and violence... Continue reading
Adult Written byDreamWork2020 September 28, 2020

Zero Dark Thirty is about the dark side of terror and humanity

Zero Dark Thirty is about the dark side of terror and humanity.

The film exposes the cruelty of terror and the cruelty required to fight it.

The commitment of... Continue reading
Teen, 14 years old Written byTom Cruise Fan August 13, 2015

"Zero Dark Thirty" movie review

"Zero Dark Thirty" is a very good film. It was interesting to see how Osama Bin Laden was found and killed because the man (if he can be called a man... Continue reading
Kid, 10 years old February 21, 2014

Zero Dark Thirty has profanity, mild nudity and violence but is still an excellent movie.

The sex is mild, only naked male bottoms. The violence is only in the end and during the torture scenes, but overall there is not too much blood and there is no... Continue reading

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?

Movie details

Our editors recommend

For kids who love drama and thrills

Themes & Topics

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