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Zero Dark Thirty

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Release date
February 15, 2013 (India)



Drama, History, Thriller


United States

Zero Dark Thirty movie poster

Release date
December 19, 2012 (2012-12-19)

(Maya), (Dan), (George), (Patrick - Squadron Team Leader), (Justin - DEVGRU), (Joseph Bradley)

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The Greatest Manhunt in History

Zero dark thirty official trailer 2 2012 kathryn bigelow bin laden movie hd

Zero Dark Thirty is a 2012 American political action-thriller film directed by Kathryn Bigelow and written by Mark Boal. Billed as "the greatest manhunt in history," the film dramatizes the nearly decade-long international manhunt for al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden after the September 11 attacks in the United States. This search eventually leads to the discovery of his compound in Pakistan and the military raid that resulted in bin Laden's death on May 2, 2011.


Zero Dark Thirty movie scenes

The film stars Jessica Chastain as Maya, a fictional CIA intelligence analyst, with Jason Clarke, Joel Edgerton, Jennifer Ehle, Mark Strong, Kyle Chandler, Édgar Ramírez, and James Gandolfini in supporting roles. It was produced by Boal, Bigelow, and Megan Ellison, and was independently financed by Ellison's Annapurna Pictures. The film premiered in Los Angeles on December 19, 2012 and had its wide release on January 11, 2013.

Zero Dark Thirty movie scenes

Zero Dark Thirty received widespread critical acclaim and appeared on 95 critics' top ten lists of 2012. It was nominated in five categories at the 85th Academy Awards, including Best Picture, Best Actress for Chastain, Best Original Screenplay, and Best Film Editing, and won the award for Best Sound Editing. The film also earned Golden Globe Award nominations for Best Motion Picture – Drama, Best Director, and Best Screenplay, with Chastain winning the award for Best Actress in a Motion Picture – Drama.

Zero Dark Thirty movie scenes

The film's depiction of so-called "enhanced interrogation" generated controversy, with some critics describing it as pro-torture propaganda, as the interrogations are shown producing reliably useful and accurate information. Acting CIA director Michael Morell stated, "The film creates the strong impression that the enhanced interrogation techniques ... were the key to finding bin Laden. That impression is false." Other critics described it as an anti-torture exposure of interrogation practices.

Zero Dark Thirty movie scenes

Republican Congressman Peter T. King charged that the filmmakers were given improper access to classified materials, which they denied. An unreleased draft IG report published by the Project on Government Oversight, in June 2013, stated that former CIA Director Leon Panetta discussed classified information during an awards ceremony for the SEAL team that carried out the raid on the bin Laden compound. Unbeknownst to Panetta, screenwriter Mark Boal was among the 1,300 present during the ceremony.

Zero Dark Thirty movie scenes

Zero dark thirty final trailer 2012 jessica chastain movie hd


Zero Dark Thirty movie scenes

Maya is a U.S. Central Intelligence Agency analyst, recruited "out of high school" around 1999, tasked with finding the al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden. In 2003 she is stationed at the U.S. embassy in Pakistan. She and fellow officer Dan, attend the blacksite interrogations of Ammar, a detainee with suspected links to several of the 2001 hijackers in the September 11 attacks, who is subjected to approved torture interrogation techniques. Ammar provides unreliable information on a suspected attack in Saudi Arabia, but does reveal to Maya the previously unknown name of the personal courier for bin Laden, Abu Ahmed al-Kuwaiti. Other detainee intelligence connects courier traffic by Abu Ahmed between Abu Faraj al-Libbi and bin Laden. In 2005, Faraj denies knowing about a courier named Abu Ahmed; she interprets this as an attempt by Faraj to conceal the importance of Abu Ahmed.

Zero Dark Thirty movie scenes

In 2009 during the Camp Chapman attack, Maya's fellow officer and friend Jessica is killed. On the same day a case manager that liked the Abu Ahmed lead, shares with her an interrogation with a Jordanian detainee claiming to have personally buried Abu Ahmed in 2001. Maya learns what the CIA was told five years earlier, that Morocco caught Ibrihim Sayeed traveling under the name of Abu Ahmed al-Kuwaiti. Realizing her lead may be alive, Maya contacts Dan, now a senior officer at the CIA headquarters. She speculates that the CIA's photograph of "Abu Ahmed" is that of his brother, Habeeb, who was killed in Afghanistan. Maya says that their beards and native clothes make all of the brothers look alike. This would explain Ammar's account of Abu Ahmed's "death" in 2001.

Zero Dark Thirty movie scenes

Maya wants the telephone number of Ibrihim Sayeed's mother, and it comes from a Kuwaiti prince for the price of a Lamborghini. CIA operatives use electronic methods to pinpoint a caller in a vehicle who persistently exhibits tradecraft behaviors that delay confirmation of his identity. The vehicle is physically tracked to a large urban compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan, near the Pakistan Military Academy. Gunmen attack Maya while she is in her vehicle; she knows that the action indicates to the agency that she is on a "list" that no one ever gets off, so Maya is recalled to Washington, D.C.

When the compound is put under surveillance, the habits and culture of the inhabitants are analyzed but no conclusive photographic identification of bin Laden is obtained. The President's National Security Advisor tasks the CIA with creating a plan to capture or kill bin Laden if he can be found. Two stealth helicopters from Area 51 are flown by the Army's 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment to enter Pakistan, insert members of DEVGRU and the CIA's SAD/SOG and raid the compound. Before briefing President Barack Obama, the CIA Director holds a meeting of his senior officers, who assess that bin Laden being there is a chance of 60–80%, rather than another high-value target. Maya, also in attendance, uses the "habits" intelligence to shore-up her conclusion to 100% that bin Laden is there.

The raid is approved and is executed on May 2, 2011. One of the helicopters crashes, the SEALs gain entry and kill a number of people within the compound—among them a man in the building who is believed to be bin Laden. At a U.S. base in Jalalabad, Afghanistan, Maya visually confirms the identity of the corpse. Maya is last seen boarding a military transport to return to the U.S. and sitting in its vast interior as its only passenger. The pilot asks her where she wants to go, but she does not reply.

As the plane's cargo door closes, Maya begins to cry softly.


The film's working title was For God and Country. The title Zero Dark Thirty was officially confirmed at the end of the film's teaser trailer. Bigelow has explained that "it's a military term for 30 minutes after midnight, and it refers also to the darkness and secrecy that cloaked the entire decade-long mission."


Bigelow and Boal had initially worked on and finished a screenplay centered on the December 2001 Battle of Tora Bora, and the long, unsuccessful efforts to find Osama bin Laden in the region. The two were about to begin filming when news broke that bin Laden had been killed.

They immediately shelved the film they had been working on and redirected their focus, essentially starting from scratch. "But a lot of the homework I'd done for the first script and a lot of the contacts I made, carried over," Boal remarked during an interview with Entertainment Weekly. He added, "The years I had spent talking to military and intelligence operators involved in counter-terrorism was helpful in both projects. Some of the sourcing I had developed long, long ago continued to be helpful for this version."

Along with painstakingly recreating the historic night-vision raid on the Abbottabad compound, the script and the film stress the little-reported role of the tenacious young female CIA officer who tracked down Osama bin Laden. Screenwriter Boal said that while researching for the film, "I heard through the grapevine that women played a big role in the CIA in general and in this team. I heard that a woman was there on the night of the raid as one of the CIA's liaison officers on the ground – and that was the start of it." He then turned up stories about a young case officer who was recruited out of college, who had spent her entire career chasing bin Laden. Maya's tough-minded, monomaniacal persona, Boal said, is "based on a real person, but she also represents the work of a lot of other women."


Parts of the film were shot at PEC University of Technology in Chandigarh, India. Some parts of Chandigarh were designed to look like Lahore and Abbottabad in Pakistan, where Osama bin Laden was found and killed on May 2, 2011. Parts of the film were shot in Mani Majra. Local members of Hindu Nationalist parties protested, expressing anti-bin Laden and anti-Pakistan sentiments as they objected to Pakistani locations being portrayed on Indian soil. For a lone scene shot in Poland, the city of Gdańsk was reportedly offended for depicting it as a location for the CIA's clandestine and dark operations.

National security expert Peter Bergen, who reviewed an early cut of the film as an unpaid adviser, said at the time that the film's torture scenes "were overwrought". Boal said they were "toned down" in the final cut.


Alexandre Desplat composed the film's score. The score, performed by the London Symphony Orchestra, was released as a soundtrack album by Madison Gate Records on December 19, 2012.


Electronic Arts promoted Zero Dark Thirty in its video game Medal of Honor: Warfighter by offering downloadable maps of locations depicted in the film. Additional maps for the game were made available on December 19, to coincide with the film's initial release. Electronic Arts donates $1 to nonprofit organizations that support veterans for each Zero Dark Thirty map pack sold.

Critical response

On Rotten Tomatoes the film has an approval rating of 92% based on 265 reviews, with an average rating of 8.6/10. The site's critical consensus reads, "Gripping, suspenseful, and brilliantly crafted, Zero Dark Thirty dramatizes the hunt for Osama bin Laden with intelligence and an eye for detail." On Metacritic the film has a score of 95 out of 100, based on 46 critics, indicating "universal acclaim". It was the site's best-reviewed film of 2012.

The film appeared on 95 critics' top ten lists of 2012, more than any film in its year, whilst 17 had the film in number-one spot.

New York Times critic Manohla Dargis, who designated the film a New York Times critics' pick, said that the film "shows the dark side of that war. It shows the unspeakable and lets us decide if the death of Bin Laden was worth the price we paid." Continued Dargis:

There is much else to say about the movie, which ends with the harrowing siege of Bin Laden's hideaway by the Navy SEALs (played by, among others, Joel Edgerton and Chris Pratt), much of it shot to approximate the queasy, weirdly unreal green of night-vision goggles. Ms. Bigelow's direction here is unexpectedly stunning, at once bold and intimate: she has a genius for infusing even large-scale action set pieces with the human element. One of the most significant images is of a pool of blood on a floor. It's pitiful, really, and as the movie heads toward its emphatically non-triumphant finish, it is impossible not to realize with anguish that all that came before – the pain, the suffering and the compromised ideals – has led to this.

Richard Corliss' review in Time magazine called it "a fine" movie and "a police procedural on the grand scale", saying it "blows Argo out of the water". Todd McCarthy of The Hollywood Reporter said, "it could well be the most impressive film Bigelow has made, as well as possibly her most personal." Peter Debruge of Variety said: "The ultra-professional result may be easier to respect than enjoy, but there's no denying its power." Critic Katey Rich of The Guardian said: "Telling a nearly three-hour story with an ending everyone knows, Bigelow and Boal have managed to craft one of the most intense and intellectually challenging films of the year." Calling Zero Dark Thirty "a milestone in post-Sept. 11 cinema", critic A. O. Scott of The New York Times listed the film at number six of the top 10 films of 2012.

The New Yorker film critic David Denby lauded the filmmakers for their approach. "The virtue of Zero Dark Thirty," wrote Denby, "is that it pays close attention to the way life does work; it combines ruthlessness and humanity in a manner that is paradoxical and disconcerting yet satisfying as art." But Denby faulted the filmmakers for getting lodged on the divide between fact and fiction.

Yet, in attempting to show, in a mainstream movie, the reprehensibility of torture, and what was done in our name, the filmmakers seem to have conflated events, and in this they have generated a sore controversy: the chairs of two Senate committees have said that the information used to find bin Laden was not uncovered through waterboarding. Do such scenes hurt the movie? Not as art; they are expertly done, without flinching from the horror of the acts and without exploitation. But they damage the movie as an alleged authentic account. Bigelow and Boal – the team behind The Hurt Locker – want to claim the authority of fact and the freedom of fiction at the same time, and the contradiction mars an ambitious project.

Steve Coll criticized the early claims for "journalism" with the use of composite characters. He took issue with the film's using the names of historical figures and details of their lives for characters, such as using details for "Ammar" to suggest that he was Ali Abdul Aziz Ali, whose nom de guerre was Ammar al-Baluchi. Coll said the facts about him were different from what was portrayed in the film, which suggests the detainee will never leave the black site. Al-Baluchi was transferred to Guantanamo in 2006 for a military tribunal. Coll writes:

He has been an active, defiant participant in Guantánamo court proceedings and his lawyers have sought permission from military judges to introduce evidence in his defense that he was tortured while in CIA custody, and to pursue information about the identities of the agency officers who interrogated him.

The Washington Post's critic Ann Hornaday, who named Zero Dark Thirty as the year's best film, noted the divergent takes on the film: "As Boal and Bigelow gather critics' plaudits and awards, the movie itself has entered a fascinating parallel conversation – part food fight for cable-news channels desperate for post-election fodder, part valuable (if belated) civic debate." Writing in the Los Angeles Times, critic Kenneth Turan singled out actress Chastain for her performance. "Her single-minded ferocity and stubbornness not only prove essential in the hunt, but also make up the emotional through line that engages us in the story of Zero Dark Thirty."

Writing in The Wall Street Journal, film critic Joe Morgenstern said:

This is the work of a commanding filmmaker who is willing, as well as able, to confront a full spectrum of moral ambiguity. [...] Others will debate the facts, but I can tell you that Zero Dark Thirty does not apologize for torture, any more than it denounces it. What it does in the course of telling a seminal story of our time is what contemporary films so rarely do, serve as brilliant provocation.

Roger Ebert of the Chicago Sun-Times gave the film three stars out of four and said:

The film's opening scenes are not great filmmaking. They're heavy on jargon and impenetrable calculation, murky and heavy on theory. [...] My guess is that much of the fascination with this film is inspired by the unveiling of facts, unclearly seen. There isn't a whole lot of plot – basically, just that Maya thinks she is right, and she is.

David Edelstein said that "[a]s a moral statement, Zero Dark Thirty is borderline fascistic", but "[a]s a piece of cinema, it's phenomenally gripping – an unholy masterwork." The journalist Matt Taibbi wrote:

The real problem is what this movie says about us. When those Abu Ghraib pictures came out years ago, at least half of America was horrified. The national consensus (albeit by a frighteningly slim margin) was that this wasn't who we, as a people, wanted to be. But now, four years later, Zero Dark Thirty comes out, and it seems that that we've become so blunted to the horror of what we did and/or are doing at Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo and Bagram and other places that we can accept it, provided we get a boffo movie out of it.

The film was met with a few negative reviews including the Daily Mail's Chris Tookey remarking, in a 1/5 star review, that Chastain's character was "a cold, opaque, one-dimensional figure, as involving as a pre-programmed cyborg." while adding that "There was the opportunity here to examine a complex, important subject central to the history of our time. However, complexity, depth and character are not Ms Bigelow's forte."

The film was also criticised for its factual inaccuracies and its stereotypical portrayal of Pakistan, with dismay being expressed at the botched depiction of, among other things, languages Pakistani nationals speak (Arabic instead of Urdu and other regional languages) and the obsolete headgear they wear.

Top ten lists

Zero Dark Thirty was listed on many critics' top ten lists.

Box office

The limited release of Zero Dark Thirty grossed $417,150 in the United States and Canada in only five theaters. A wide release followed on January 11.

Entertainment Weekly wrote, "The controversial Oscar contender easily topped the chart in its first weekend of wide release with $24.4 million." Zero Dark Thirty grossed $95,720,716 in the U.S. and Canada, along with $37,100,000 in other countries, for a worldwide total of $132,820,716. It was the top-grossing film of its wide release premiere weekend.


Zero Dark Thirty was nominated for five Academy Awards at the 85th Academy Awards: Best Picture, Best Actress, Best Original Screenplay, Best Sound Editing and Best Film Editing. Paul N. J. Ottosson won the Academy Award for Best Sound Editing, tying with Skyfall. This was only the sixth tie in Academy Awards history, and the first since 1994. Zero Dark Thirty was nominated for four Golden Globe Awards at the 70th Golden Globe Awards, including Best Motion Picture – Drama, Best Director, Best Screenplay, with Chastain winning Best Actress – Motion Picture Drama.

The Washington D.C. Area Film Critics Association's award for Best Director was given to Bigelow, the second time the honor has gone to a woman (the first also being Bigelow for The Hurt Locker). The film swept critics groups' awards for Best Director and Best Picture including the Washington D.C., New York Film Critics Online, Chicago and Boston film critics associations.

Home media

Zero Dark Thirty was released on DVD and Blu-ray Disc on March 19, 2013.


Writer Boal has stated his interest in making the original film on the 2001 Tora Bora hunt for bin Laden that he and Bigelow conceived. That finished screenplay had been set aside after bin Laden was killed in 2011 to focus on what became Zero Dark Thirty. "I love reporting, so being on a big story is really exciting to me," said Boal, a former war journalist, of his scramble to write a new script after the event. "But nobody likes to throw out two years of work."

Historical accuracy

Zero Dark Thirty has received criticism for historical inaccuracy. Former Assistant Secretary of Defense Graham T. Allison has opined that the film is inaccurate in three important regards: the overstatement of the positive role of enhanced interrogation methods, the understatement of the role of the Obama administration, and the portrayal of the efforts as being driven by one agent battling against the CIA "system".

In December 2014 Jane Mayer of The New Yorker wrote that "Maya" was modeled in part after CIA officer Alfreda Frances Bikowsky.

On May 21, 2015, journalist Seymour Hersh reported that the Pakistani Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) had kept bin Laden under house arrest at Abbottabad since 2006, and that Pakistani Army chief Pervez Kayani and ISI director Ahmad Shuja Pasha aided the U.S. mission to kill, not capture bin Laden. Hersh's U.S. and Pakistani intelligence sources stated that the U.S. had learned of bin Laden's location through an ISI walk-in seeking the $25 million reward and not through tracking a courier; this had been previously reported by R.J. Hillhouse and was afterward confirmed by NBC News. The White House denied Hersh's report.

Allegations of partisanship

Partisan political controversy arose related to the film before shooting began. Opponents of the Obama Administration charged that Zero Dark Thirty was scheduled for an October release just before the November presidential election to support his re-election, as Bin Laden's killing is regarded as a success for President Obama. Sony denied that politics was a factor in release scheduling and said the date was the best available spot for an action-thriller in a crowded lineup. The film's screenwriter added, "the president is not depicted in the movie. He's just not in the movie."

The distributor Columbia Pictures, sensitive to political perceptions, considered rescheduling the film release for as late as early 2013. It set a limited-release date for December 19, 2012, well after the election and rendering moot any alleged political conflict. The nationwide release date was pushed back to January 11, 2013, moving it out of the crowded Christmas period and closer to the Academy Awards. After the film's limited release, given the controversy related to the film's depiction of torture and its role in gaining critical information, The New York Times columnist Frank Bruni concluded that the film is "a far, far cry from the rousing piece of pro-Obama propaganda that some conservatives feared it would be". Two months later, the paper's columnist Roger Cohen wrote that the film was "a courageous work that is disturbing in the way that art should be". Cohen disagreed with Steve Coll's critique of the screenwriter's stated effort not to "play fast and loose with history", writing that "Boal has honored those words". Cohen ended with a note about a Timothy Garton Ash analysis of George Orwell mixing fact and "invented" stories in Down and Out in Paris and London – as further support for Boal's method.

Allegations of improper access to classified information

Several Republican sources charged the Obama Administration of improperly providing Bigelow and her team access to classified information during their research for the film. These charges, along with charges of other leaks to the media, became a prevalent election season talking point by conservatives. The Republican national convention party platform even claimed Obama "has tolerated publicizing the details of the operation to kill the leader of Al Qaeda." No release of these details has been proven.

The Republican congressman Peter T. King requested that the CIA and the U.S. Defense Department investigate if classified information was inappropriately released; both departments said they would look into it. The CIA responded to Congressman King writing, "the protection of national security equities – including the preservation of our ability to conduct effective counterterrorism operations – is the decisive factor in determining how the CIA engages with filmmakers and the media as a whole."

The conservative watchdog group Judicial Watch publicized CIA and U.S. Defense Department documents obtained through a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request, and alleged that "unusual access to agency information" was granted to the filmmakers. But, an examination of the documents showed no evidence that classified information was leaked to the filmmakers. In addition, CIA records did not show any involvement by the White House in relation to the filmmakers. The filmmakers have said they were not given access to classified details about Osama bin Laden's killing.

In January 2013, Reuters reported that the United States Senate Select Committee on Intelligence will review the contacts between the CIA and the filmmakers to find out whether Bigelow and Boal had inappropriate access to classified information. In February, Reuters reported that the inquiry was dropped.

In June 2013, an unreleased U.S. Defense Department Inspector General's office report stated that former CIA Director Leon Panetta, while giving a presentation at a private awards ceremony, disclosed information classified as "Secret" and "Top Secret" regarding personnel involved in the raid on the Bin Laden compound.

Allegations of pro-torture stance

The film has been both criticized and praised for its handling of subject matter, including the portrayal of harsh interrogation techniques, commonly classified as torture. The use of these techniques was long kept secret by the Bush administration. (See Torture Memos.) Glenn Greenwald, in The Guardian, stated that the film takes a pro-torture stance, describing it as "pernicious propaganda" and stating that it "presents torture as its CIA proponents and administrators see it: as a dirty, ugly business that is necessary to protect America." Critic Frank Bruni concluded that the film appears to suggest "No waterboarding, no Bin Laden". Jesse David Fox writes that the film "doesn't explicitly say that torture caught bin Laden, but in portraying torture as one part of the successful search, it can be read that way." Emily Bazelon said, "The filmmakers didn't set out to be Bush-Cheney apologists", but "they adopted a close-to-the-ground point of view, and perhaps they're in denial about how far down the path to condoning torture this led them." Journalist Michael Wolff slammed the film as a "nasty piece of pulp and propaganda" and Bigelow as a "fetishist and sadist" for distorting history with a pro-torture viewpoint. Wolff disputed the efficacy of torture and the claim that it contributed to the discovery of bin Laden. In an open letter, social critic and feminist Naomi Wolf criticized Bigelow for claiming the film was "part documentary" and speculated over the reasons for Bigelow's "amoral compromising" of film-making, suggesting that the more pro-military a film, the easier it is to acquire Pentagon support for scenes involving expensive, futuristic military equipment. Wolf likened Bigelow to the acclaimed director and propagandist for the Nazi regime, Leni Riefenstahl, saying: "Like Riefenstahl, you are a great artist. But now you will be remembered forever as torture's handmaiden." Author Karen J. Greenberg wrote that "Bigelow has bought in, hook, line, and sinker, to the ethos of the Bush administration and its apologists" and called the film "the perfect piece of propaganda, with all the appeal that naked brutality, fear, and revenge can bring". Peter Maass of The Atlantic said the film "represents a troubling new frontier of government-embedded filmmaking".

Jane Mayer of The New Yorker, who has published The Dark Side, a book about the use of torture during the Bush administration, criticized the film, saying that Bigelow was

milk[ing] the U.S. torture program for drama while sidestepping the political and ethical debate that it provoked.... [By] excising the moral debate that raged over the interrogation program during the Bush years, the film also seems to accept almost without question that the CIA's 'enhanced interrogation techniques' played a key role in enabling the agency to identify the courier who unwittingly led them to bin Laden.

Author Greg Mitchell wrote that "the film's depiction of torture helping to get bin Laden is muddled at best – but the overall impression by the end, for most viewers, probably will be: Yes, torture played an important (if not the key) role." Filmmaker Alex Gibney called the film a "stylistic masterwork" but criticized the "irresponsible and inaccurate" depiction of torture, writing:

there is no cinematic evidence in the film that EITs led to false information – lies that were swallowed whole because of the misplaced confidence in the efficacy of torture. Most students of this subject admit that torture can lead to the truth. But what Boal/Bigelow fail to show is how often the CIA deluded itself into believing that torture was a magic bullet, with disastrous results.

Philosopher Slavoj Žižek, in an article for The Guardian, criticized what he perceived a "normalization" of torture in the film, arguing that the mere neutrality on an issue many see as revolting is already a type of endorsement per se. Žižek proposed that if a similar film was made about a brutal rape or the Holocaust, such a movie would "embody a deeply immoral fascination with its topic, or it would count on the obscene neutrality of its style to engender dismay and horror in spectators." Žižek further panned Bigelow's stance of coldly presenting the issue in a rational manner, instead of being dogmatically rejected as a repulsive, unethical proposition.

Journalist Steve Coll, who has written on foreign policy, national security and the bin Laden family, criticized the filmmakers for saying the film was "journalistic", which implies that it is based in fact. At the same time, they claimed artistic license, which he described "as an excuse for shoddy reporting about a subject as important as whether torture had a vital part in the search for bin Laden". Coll wrote that "arguably, the film's degree of emphasis on torture's significance goes beyond what even the most die-hard defenders of the CIA interrogation regime [...] have argued", as he said it was shown as critical at several points.

U.S. Senator John McCain, who was tortured during his time as a prisoner of war in North Vietnam, said that the film left him sick – "because it's wrong". In a speech in the Senate, he said, "Not only did the use of enhanced interrogation techniques on Khalid Sheikh Mohammed not provide us with key leads on bin Laden's courier, Abu Ahmed, it actually produced false and misleading information." McCain and fellow senators Dianne Feinstein and Carl Levin sent a critical letter to Michael Lynton, chairman of the film's distributor, Sony Pictures Entertainment, stating, "[W]ith the release of Zero Dark Thirty, the filmmakers and your production studio are perpetuating the myth that torture is effective. You have a social and moral obligation to get the facts right."

Michael Morell, the CIA's acting director, sent a public letter on December 21, 2012 to the agency's employees, which said that Zero Dark Thirty

takes significant artistic license, while portraying itself as being historically accurate.... [The film] creates the strong impression that the enhanced interrogation techniques that were part of our former detention and interrogation program were the key to finding Bin Ladin. That impression is false. (...) [T]he truth is that multiple streams of intelligence led CIA analysts to conclude that Bin Ladin was hiding in Abbottabad. Some came from detainees subjected to enhanced techniques, but there were many other sources as well. And, importantly, whether enhanced interrogation techniques were the only timely and effective way to obtain information from those detainees, as the film suggests, is a matter of debate that cannot and never will be definitively resolved.

The Huffington Post writer, G. Roger Denson, countered this, saying that the filmmakers were being made scapegoats for information openly admitted by government and intelligence officials. Denson said that Leon Panetta, three days after Osama bin Laden's death, seemed to say that waterboarding was a means of extracting reliable and crucial information in the hunt for bin Laden. Denson noted Panetta speaking as the CIA chief in May 2011, saying that "enhanced interrogation techniques were used to extract information that led to the mission's success". Panetta said waterboarding was among the techniques used. In a Huffington Post article written a week later, Denson cited other statements from Bush government officials saying that torture had yielded information to locate bin Laden.

National security reporter Spencer Ackerman said the film "does not present torture as a silver bullet that led to bin Laden; it presents torture as the ignorant alternative to that silver bullet". Critic Glenn Kenny said that he "saw a movie that subverted a lot of expectations concerning viewer identification and empathy" and that "rather than endorsing the barbarity, the picture makes the viewer in a sense complicit with it", which is "[a] whole other can of worms". Writer Andrew Sullivan said, "the movie is not an apology for torture, as so many have said, and as I have worried about. It is an exposure of torture. It removes any doubt that war criminals ran this country for seven years". Filmmaker Michael Moore similarly said, "I left the movie thinking it made an incredible statement against torture", and noted that the film showed the abject brutality of torture. Critic Andrew O'Hehir said that the filmmaker's position on torture in the film is ambiguous, and creative choices were made and the film poses "excellent questions for us to ask ourselves, arguably defining questions of the age, and I think the longer you look at them the thornier they get".

Screenwriter Boal described the pro-torture accusations as "preposterous", stating that "it's just misreading the film to say that it shows torture leading to the information about bin Laden", while director Bigelow added: "Do I wish [torture] was not part of that history? Yes. But it was." In February 2013 in the Wall Street Journal, Boal responded to the Senate critics, being quoted as saying "[D]oes that mean they can use the movie as a political platform to talk about what they've been wanting to talk about for years and years and years? Do I think that Feinstein used the movie as a publicity tool to get a conversation going about her report? I believe it, ..." referring to the intelligence committee's report on enhanced interrogations. He also said the senators' letter showed they were still concerned about public opinion supporting the effectiveness of torture and didn't want the movie reinforcing that. Boal said, though, "I don't think that [effectiveness] issue has really been resolved" if there is a suspect with possible knowledge of imminent attack who will not talk.

Writer Mark Bowden argued that the film is neither pro- nor anti-torture: "[P]ure storytelling is not always about making an argument, no matter how worthy. It can be simply about telling the truth." In an interview with Time magazine, Bigelow said: "I'm proud of the movie, and I stand behind it completely. I think that it's a deeply moral movie that questions the use of force. It questions what was done in the name of finding bin Laden." In a 2013 interview on The Colbert Report, Bigelow said the film showed many techniques of intelligence gathering used to find bin Laden, such as electronic surveillance, troops at the ground level, and "good, old-fashioned, boots-on-the-ground sleuthing".

Objections over the unattributed use of recordings of 9/11 victims

According to the relatives of Betty Ong, a flight attendant on a hijacked American Airlines plane, a clip from her call to headquarters was used in the beginning of the film without attribution. They demanded that, if the film won any awards, the filmmakers apologize at the Academy Awards ceremony for using the clip without getting her heirs' consent. Her family also asked that the film's U.S. distributors make a charitable donation in Ong's name, and should go on record that the Ong family does not endorse the use of torture. The end of the film already includes a statement paying tribute to the victims and the families of the 9/11 attacks, and the film producers have already contributed to the National September 11 Memorial & Museum. Mary and Frank Fetchet, parents of Brad Fetchet, who worked on the 89th floor of the World Trade Center's south tower, criticized the filmmakers for using a recording of their son's voicemail without permission. The recording has previously been heard in broadcast TV news reports and in testimony for the 9/11 Commission.

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