Zero dark thirty: Entertainment, not a documentary

Published: January 31, 2013

Yes, Zero Dark Thirty portrays a dark corner of Pakistan, but the film never claims that this is all there is to the country.

If ever there was an appropriate name for a film, Zero Dark Thirty is it.

The title here, which is military speak for the ‘middle of the night’, not only stands for the pitch black hour at which Osama bin Laden was apparently killed by the US Navy SEALs in Abbottabad, Pakistan, but represents the murky nature of the decade long clandestine hunt for the notorious al Qaeda leader. 

Zero Dark Thirty highly dramatises these events to create a supremely gripping intelligence film which clicks on multiple levels due to the cold gun-steel style of its director, Kathryn Bigelow (Hurt Locker.)   

Yes, it is clear that no one can shoot a mesmerising action sequence quite like the academy-award winning director. In a space dominated by male filmmakers such as Michael Bay (Transformers), who allow their testosterone to explode all over the silver screen, it is refreshing to note that it is a female filmmaker, who with her intelligent style of enhanced-realism, is brave enough to break the status quo.

Certainly, there is some of Bigelow’s determined nature in the film’s lead character, CIA agent Maya (Jessica Chastain), who doggedly argues with her superiors that Bin Laden is still alive, and not leading the world’s most infamous terrorist organisation from the seclusion of a dusty cave. Selected by the American intelligence organisation for recruitment as a young adult, the redheaded Maya spends the majority of the film, and her career, on this one demanding task.


Jessica Chastain is excellent in her performance as a young agent tasked with such a high pressure assignment, displaying all the frustrations and heartbreak which expectedly come with such a job.  There is an interesting single-mindedness to her character which exemplifies the loner personality of individuals married to their work.


The film begins two years after the attacks of September 11, where the CIA are gathering information on the whereabouts of Osama bin Laden. Here, we are shown one of many torture sequences in the film, that are highly disturbing, yet quite engrossing to watch, as we observe the clinical process of the CIA for extracting information from detainees.

It is interesting that while the majority of these scenes take place at interrogation cells in Pakistan, the interrogations themselves are mostly conducted by American CIA employees. If the film is to be believed, the intelligence organisations in Pakistan and America enjoyed a close partnership, a fact that may tickle citizens of Pakistan the wrong way.

Critics of the film have stated that these torture sequences are highly exaggerated, not only in their style, but in their level of importance to anti-terrorist organisations. While the truth of it may never been known, it is clear that although Zero Dark Thirty affords a method that relies on the suspension of disbelief through gritty realism, the film is a piece of entertainment, and certainly not a documentary.

In these opening scenes at a CIA black site, Maya is introduced to her fellow superior officer, Dan (Jason Clarke), who shows her the ropes. Maya is a quick learner, and soon starts piecing together information on al Qaeda members, which she hopes can lead her to their most wanted leader. Here, Maya develops a safe friendship with intelligence colleague Jessica (Jennifer Ehle), who teases her about getting involved in a relationship with Dan.


But Maya has little time for relationships, and through the interrogation and torture of Saudi terrorist after Saudi terrorist, sniffs out a very important name which eventually helps her hit her target. This name of course, is ‘Abu Ahmed’, a man who is supposedly the personal courier of Osama Bin Laden, and thus the key to finding the world’s most elusive man.

But even after Maya locates her man, much to her vexation, she isn’t able to nab him until the high level operation is approved by everyone involved, which is the entire United States government.


Zero Dark Thirty has resulted in some racially charged comments across social networking websites like Twitter, but it is important to note that it is such viewers, and not the film itself, who are prejudiced. Obviously, the al Qaeda was lead by a group of Muslim fundamentalists, and it would have been strange had the film transformed the terrorist network into a group of angry scientologists lead by Tom Cruise, in order to appear more politically correct.

Sometimes, it seems, the inner racist in narrow minded individuals is simply looking for a trigger, whatever that may be.

Cinema organisations across Pakistan have taken the decision not to screen the film, for reasons that the film may offend Pakistani viewers. While such reasons may appear sound, especially after the burning of cinemas in Pakistan with the online release of the YouTube film, Innocence of Muslims, I find the reaction to be a little extreme.

Yes, Zero Dark Thirty portrays a dark corner of Pakistan, but the film never claims that this is all there is to the country. It doesn’t have to, because this is a film about the hunt for Osama Bin Laden, and not about Pakistan’s glorious win at the cricket world cup. And like it or not, our national army was completely clueless about an operation by a foreign military on its own soil, near its own military academy.

So if Zero Dark Thirty makes us look completely incompetent and stupid when it came to the events of May 2, 2011, perhaps it is because we were.

Correction: An earlier version of the blog incorrectly mentioned “naval compound” instead of “military academy” in the second last paragraph. The error has been rectified. 

Read more by Noman here or follow him on Twitter @Pugnate

Noman Ansari

Noman Ansari

The author is the editor-in-chief of IGN Pakistan, and has been reviewing films and writing opinion pieces for The Express Tribune as well as Dawn for five years. He tweets as @Pugnate (

The views expressed by the writer and the reader comments do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of The Express Tribune.

  • jamaluddin

    I normally agree with your blogs, but not quite with this one. Sorry. Recommend

  • EAR

    I really have to applaud the writer for analyzing the movie without prejudice. The movie has stirred some great controversy on whether it encourages torture and hatred towards muslims. I concur with the writer that any prejudice lies with the viewer and not the movie.
    I think this blog may not be taken to kindly too, but I think if we read this without our own prejudice, this is a really well analyzed review. Recommend

  • ss

    So if Zero Dark Thirty makes us look completely incompetent and stupid when it came to the events of May 2, 2011, perhaps it is because we were.//

    agree with the writer cent percent.Recommend

  • Nobody

    Agreed. Sometimes I feel like people just need a reason to play the victim card instead of facing something and do so by grabbing any edge they can, no matter how weak. Although I wasn’t happy about the inaccuracy regarding the cruciality of torture as portrayed in the film either, I reminded myself this is Hollywood’s take on it, not a documentary as you also stated. I don’t like exposing a negative light on Pakistan any more than the next guy or gal, but reality is reality. Refusing to play it seems extreme to me and I’m starting to see this as a trend in Pakistan lately (when you don’t like something, ban it. when something’s different from your typical beliefs, ban it). However, given the minority of crazies seem to have a bit too much room on that platform of psychos they’re on and maybe it’s in the best interest of cinema owners and those who like going there. Side note: high time someone control the bloody idiots running around destroying things because something doesn’t go their way. Recommend

  • Ali


    Prejudice lies with the viewer? Victim card? Reality? Are you guys kidding me? The film portrays Pakistan as somewhere in the middle of Middle East and Lahore with all women wearing a burka and speaking Arabic.. REALLY? wow.

    If you are suffering so much from inferiority complex that you need to make this inaccurate, right wing, propagandist movie a reference point for your views then it might be time to reevaluate your life.Recommend

  • Parvez

    That was an excellent, balance, sensible analysis…………after all its a movie and should be seen as such. Recommend

  • Noman Ansari

    The women speaking Arabic were Arab women dude.Recommend

  • Raj Abbas Khan

    But I Like TERE BIN LADIN More :)Recommend

  • Pessimist

    You know, I haven’t seen this movie and I don’t seriously want to. Perhaps the notion of knowing that the world’s most dangerous man was simply right next door to Pakistan’s military academy. :/Recommend

  • Last night I watch this movie…..I saw an Indian flag hoisted in a scene(Where Kuwaiti was being followed by C.I.A men in Peshawar). Later I found in Wikipedia that some scenes of movie were shoot in Chandigarh India,,Overall a nice movie and good analysis too.Recommend

  • Hassaan


    I don’t know what movie you saw, or if you even saw it (hell, maybe you’re just going off of what someone told you about this movie), but the portrayals of Islamabad, Peshawar and Abottabad were spot on, enough to leave me impressed, and I usually scoff at movies’ comical versions of Pakistani cities. If you’ve ever been up near the NW border, many women do wear the tell-tale Afghan blue burka that looks like an NBC warfare hazard suit.

    And please, we live in a country that is two gunshots away from total and utter collapse into chaos and economic annihilation, where basic human rights are suppressed through the threat of violence (as are the liberal youth, which constitute the only real hope for the country), and corruption is openly and unabashedly embraced as a fact of life by politicians and pundits alike. What you have sir, is false pride and delusions of grandeur – Pakistan’s inferiority to most of the world’s economies and social policies barring a handful of African nations is a fact on the global scale. Pride isn’t going to fix it. Chauvinism isn’t going to fix it. Recognize and do something to rectify the fact, and you’ll be doing your country some good. Denial isn’t gonna help one bit.Recommend

  • gp65

    @[email protected]: The Islamabad and Abbotabad scenes were picturised in Chandigarh. In fact Urdu signboards were created for the purpose an Pakistani flags and all. The stores with Hindi signboards were replaced by Urdu signboards. Many people in India had in fact protested because they did not want India to be made to look like Pakistan (silly protest if you ask me).

    @Noman Ansari: Great review overall. Glad you made the point about the Arab women speaking in Arabic. I have seen this exact same criticism of Pakistanis shown as speaking in Arabic repeated in multiple places to where it almost seems like a talking point.

    I didn’t enjoy the movie because realistic violence grosses me out (not the Bollywood dishoom dishoom which is just funny). I had seen it before it became clear how gruesome those torture scenes were and what a major chunk of the movie they constituted or I would have skipped it.Recommend

  • Amreekan Gangster

    Overall a very solid flick. I was going to respond to Ali’s comments but I think Hassan hit the nail on the end so…I’ll leave on this note instead:

    “In a space dominated by male filmmakers such as Michael Bay (Transformers), who allow their testosterone to explode all over the silver screen.”

    I see what you did there. Recommend

  • kanwal

    I am sure we the Pakistanis have every right to make a movie about the great great greatness of the Son of Bush who was presiding over Americans not do long ago. I also feel resentful about Avatar loosing the Oscar to Hurt Locker. And i like the article of Nadeem F. paracha today, about this sane movie in another english daily. Thats portrays my sentiments more accurately about this movie and its makers. Recommend

  • A. Khan

    The best way to register your protest against this movie, apart from not watching it, is to watch a pirated copy. Not that I encourage piracy but the words ends, justify and means come to mind. Recommend

  • Ch. Allah Daad

    Please correct, its not Naval compound. Its military academy..
    The residents of Abbottabad are fair color, tall and beautiful. In movie they are shown black, ugly starving Indians. Recommend

  • Baba Ji

    please please please … steer clear of fiction and taste the stark reality …

  • Noman Ansari


    Thank you for your deep and caring words Ali. I have been taking the grave step of reevaluating my life, triggered by your thoughts, and have decided to give myself an A- after much consideration. I feel that I could certainly improve to an A+ though. Once again, I appreciate you pushing me in the right direction. You sir, are a treasure. Recommend

  • deedee

    saw the movie last week..was OK…not bad..very ‘documentary type’..i noticed how politics was mainly kept out of the film. The film basically stuck to the facts of what happened following OBL’s capture. Found the movie a little long. Not as good as Hurt locker. Defiantly not Oscar worthy.Recommend

  • Nobody

    My comment did not mention ANYTHING about the accuracy of ANYTHING in the film. Kindly re-read what I said.
    When I said people tend to play the victim card, simple fact: they do, regardless of where Pakistan was said to be located or what language was said to be spoken there. That was never my point and it’s irrelevant to my comment. And playing the victim card is pointless and doesn’t achieve or change jack.
    The REALITY I spoke of was regarding the current turmoil in Pakistan, and the fact that Bin Laden was in fact found in Pakistan, . I did not refer to Kathryn Bigelow’s portrayal as reality or even accurate. I already know producers missed a huge step with their complete ignorance about Pakistan, one of the few reasons I didn’t like the movie and don’t by any means deem it oscar worthy. That ought to clarify what I said for you. Recommend

  • Sahar

    Kudos to you for writing such an excellent analysis! Recommend

  • Mehdi

    @Noman Ansari:

    I loved this movie. Planning to buy the DVD as a personal collection. Jessica Chastain acted really well. Movie portrays a true depiction of the sorry state Pakistan is in. All the events shown in the movie actually happened. Bombing of Marriott hotel in Islamabad, does it ring a bell ? one piece of advise to pakistani friends is that a New Years resolution, introspection should be their number one priority.Recommend

  • maestro

    Can someone in the US gov’t please explain how OBL landed up in Pakistan in the first place? Via Tora Bora, AFGHANISTAN! Under their very open noses! Can someone also explain why the only plane allowed to fly on 9/11 was the one carrying Bin Laden’s family out of the US with protection? And this movie portrays Pakistan in a total hilarious manner. We don’t speak arabic, we speak URDU. We have expressways, luxury cars, we don’t go around on camels and mules on mud roads! Typical american ignorance. Recommend

  • Hassan

    I feel sorry for our ppl…thy will always crticise each other nd their country nd by doing so think tht thy r doing a favour to their country…this sorry nature of our ppl is actualy the mindset tht v or majority of our ppl hav coz thy r still slaves in mind ways of these ppl…whtever thy will show our ppl will agree on nd lik always thy will rule ur slave mindz coz thy show u what thy want u to knw nd feel abt nd tell the world abt..mire imptly thy think tht thy r the only civilised nd evil haunting ppl in this world nd rest almost everyone is either evil,incompetant or stupid…jus an example of the american ignorant mindset …i would also lik to giv an example if u guys hav seen Ghost protocol i was shock too c tht thy showed an arab wid a camel ob the road near sheikh zayed ths is wht thy show their ppl tht world is lik tht everywhere nd thy r jus superior nd its unfortunate tht ppl outside US too believe in their dramas nd fabricated stories…iRecommend