AFI Movie Club: ZERO DARK THIRTY – American Film Institute
Zero Dark Thirty Film Still - Jessica Chastain



A harrowing thriller based on the real-life mission to capture Osama bin Laden, ZERO DARK THIRTY was honored with an AFI Award in 2012 – recognizing it as one of the 10 outstanding films deemed culturally and artistically representative of the year’s most significant achievements in the art of the moving image. 

Watch director KATHRYN BIGELOW talk about ZERO DARK THIRTY:

Movie Trivia about ZERO DARK THIRTY


Originally, the working title for ZERO DARK THIRTY was KILL BIN LADEN. In military slang, “Zero Dark Thirty” refers to a time after darkness has fallen when armed forces’ movements will be less conspicuous. 


A 2006 draft of the screenplay focused on the failed attempt to capture Osama bin Laden in Tora Bora, Afghanistan. However, in 2011 when the project was in pre-production, bin Laden was found and killed by U.S. military and CIA operatives in Abbottabad, Pakistan, thus prompting Mark Boal to rewrite the script.  


Excerpts of dialogue in ZERO DARK THIRTY, including actor Mark Strong’s line, “Do your jobs, bring me people to kill,” were taken directly from reports of real-life CIA meetings. 


Actress Rooney Mara was initially cast as Maya but had to drop out due to scheduling conflicts. After seeing an early cut of Jessica Chastain’s performance in CORIOLANUS, Kathryn Bigelow offered her the role, which earned her an Academy Award® nomination for her fiery performance. 


To recreate the stealth “Sikorsky Black Hawk helicopters” that were used in the Abbottabad mission, production designer Jeremy Hindle studied various sketches and photographs that appeared after the raid and worked with helicopter and avionics experts to approximate the top-secret aircraft. 


To get into the character of Maya, Jessica Chastain asked the prop department to make her copies of photographs of the terrorists from her character’s workspace to hang in her hotel. She wanted to replicate Maya’s sense of being constantly surrounded by the men she was hunting. 


For a sequence in which one of the Black Hawk helicopters crashes, a helicopter was hung from a 200-foot crane so that it could spin with actors and cameramen inside. 


ZERO DARK THIRTY was production designer Jeremy Hindle’s first feature film. Kathryn Bigelow has praised Hindle’s remarkably precise re-creation of the huge Osama bin Laden compound, built from scratch in the Jordanian desert, in less than three months. 


ZERO DARK THIRTY was nominated for five Academy Awards® – including Best Picture, Best Actress for Jessica Chastain, Best Original Screenplay and Best Editing. It took home the Oscar® for Best Sound Editing. 


ZERO DARK THIRTY director Kathryn Bigelow is the first and only woman to win the Academy Award® for Best Director. She earned the accolade in 2008 for the film THE HURT LOCKER. 


Following the film’s release, three members of the Senate Intelligence committee – Dianne Feinstein, Carl Levin and John McCain – asked the CIA to provide information about the details it gave director Kathryn Bigelow and writer Mark Boal about the effort to find and later kill Osama bin Laden. An investigation showed no evidence that classified information had been leaked to the filmmakers. 

Learn more at the AFI Catalog

The movie doesn’t end at the credits: Family-friendly Discussion Questions

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-What was the political climate like when ZERO DARK THIRTY was released? 

-How is Middle Eastern and Muslim culture portrayed in the film? 

-Recordings at the beginning of ZERO DARK THIRTY were from several real-life victims of 9/11, including American Airlines flight attendant Betty Ong and stock trader Brad Fetchet. Was it ethical to use their last words without the families’ permission? And how could the filmmakers have made amends? 

-What did you think of Jessica Chastain’s portrayal of a real-life CIA operative? How did her relentless pursuit lead to the capture of bin Laden in the film and how did she jockey for power in a male-dominated world? 

-ZERO DARK THIRTY faced accusations of being “pro-torture” following its release. Is depiction the same as endorsement? Why or why not? Do the filmmakers have a moral responsibility, even when working in fiction? 

-Did the U.S. government betray our moral values by using “enhanced interrogation techniques” in the hunt for Osama bin Laden? How is this phrase a euphemism? 

-What was the U.S.’s moral justification for using “enhanced interrogation techniques”?  Did the Geneva Conventions apply to detainees in Abu Ghraib? 

-It took the U.S. almost a decade following 9/11 to hunt down Osama bin Laden. What made the pursuit of bin Laden so difficult and complex for the CIA? How did he manage to evade capture for so long? 

-François Truffaut once said that, “it is impossible to make a true anti-war film, because the act of looking at violence is inherently exciting.” Do you agree or disagree? 

-Viewed alongside Scott Z. Burns’ recent film THE REPORT about the post-9/11 detainee program, what do you think of ZERO DARK THIRTY? As more information has been released, is it still as impactful today? 

-How would you rate ZERO DARK THIRTY? 


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