Zero Dark Thirty

Before watching Zero Dark Thirty, it is important to understand the context through which people watched the film when it was released in 2012.

Director Kathryn Bigelow (the only woman to have ever won Best Director at the Oscars, winning for her 2008 film The Hurt Locker) and writer Mark Boal were planning to create a film on America’s unsuccessful search for Osama bin Laden, when Barack Obama announced that the US had undertaken an operation that was successful in finding and killing bin Laden.

Bigelow and Boal changed their plans, deciding to make a film primarily about the search for and capture of Bin Laden. Zero Dark Thirty became a film that was widely praised by critics, including receiving five Academy Award nominations and four Golden Globe nominations. However, the film was also widely criticised for what some thought to be a damaging misrepresentation of the truth associated with the capture of Bin Laden.

At the time, most people who were watching Obama’s address to the nation understood the gravity of the moment and the history between bin Laden and the United States – a history that Zero Dark Thirty takes as being implicit knowledge of its audience.

As students studying the film, it is important that you have a clear sense of the history behind it so that you can then consider the perspectives of those who praised the film and those who were more disparaging of its representations.



Before considering some of the history below, think about what you already know about September 11, 2001.

Think about:

  • What you know that happened on that day.
  • What images you would recognise as having been from that day.
  • Who was responsible for the terrorist attack.
  • How America responded to the attack.
  • Any knowledge you have regarding why people say that “the world changed” on that day.



1) The Wall Street Journal has a detailed timeline of the 9/11 attacks that is a good place to start your reading.

2) If you would like some more detail, particularly regarding the fallout from 9/11, check out The Conversation’s primer that has a strong focus on the ‘War on Terror’ that was part of the American response, and the increase in Islamophobia that can still be seen in some parts of the West today.

3) As part of the fallout from 9/11, the US sought the capture of anyone from Al Qaeda, who was involved in the attacks. As part of this quest, the Bush Administration approved the use of ‘Enhanced Interrogation Techniques’ – techniques that many would refer to as torture – when interviewing prisoners. To understand what these techniques were, read the introduction to the Wikipedia page on them, particularly how they were approved at the time and the public’s response to them.

4) American prisons came under great scrutiny in the years between 9/11 and the capture of Bin Laden. In 2004, photos were released from the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq which was part of the US’s War on Terror. The photos showed American soldiers committing a series of human rights abuses against prisoners. The images became iconic as emblems of American abuse.

5) The War on Terror was also a time during which the US began to hold prisoners indefinitely without a trial – a very controversial practice. This often happened in Guantanamo Bay, a military prison in Cuba. It was here that the most controversial use of ‘Enhanced Interrogation Techniques’ took place. It was also where Khalid Sheikh Mohammed – also known as KSM – was held after his capture. KSM was regarded to be the “principal architect of the 9/11 attacks”.

6) Finally, it is interesting to consider this article from The Conversation which considers How the pain from 9/11 still stays with a generation.


As you watch Zero Dark Thirty, you might want to keep this glossary from The Guardian handy in case you are unsure of some of the terms being used in the film.