Zero Dark Thirty (2012) - Plot Summary Poster


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  • A chronicle of the decade-long hunt for al-Qaeda terrorist leader Osama bin Laden after the September 2001 attacks, and his death at the hands of the Navy S.E.A.L.s Team 6 in May 2011.

  • Maya is a CIA operative whose first experience is in the interrogation of prisoners following the Al Qaeda attacks against the U.S. on the 11th September 2001. She is a reluctant participant in extreme duress applied to the detainees, but believes that the truth may only be obtained through such tactics. For several years, she is single-minded in her pursuit of leads to uncover the whereabouts of Al Qaeda's leader, Osama Bin Laden. Finally, in 2011, it appears that her work will pay off, and a U.S. Navy SEAL team is sent to kill or capture Bin Laden. But only Maya is confident Bin Laden is where she says he is.

  • After September 11th 2001, CIA rookie agent Maya is assigned to Pakistan to learn how to torture and seek out Osama Bin Laden. For five years, she becomes obsessed to find Osama and in 2011, the terrorist leader of Al-Qaeda is killed by the U.S. Navy SEAL Team following the lead of Maya.

  • Recruited by the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) in 1999 immediately following her high school graduation, Maya, who has been solely working on the Al Qaeda file, gets her first field assignment in 2003 in Pakistan as an analyst working with an interrogation team. This assignment is more important now than when she was hired if only because of 9/11 and the knowledge that Al Qaeda was responsible. The main assignment of the team is to neutralize Al Qaeda, with the capture and killing of Osama bin Laden being gravy if were to happen. Because of her age and inexperience, Maya is ill-prepared for the emotional toll of the job, especially the torturous interrogation techniques used, which she does witness. As Maya's involvement in the file progresses, things change. What is considered acceptable interrogation techniques change, where past "torture" may now be prosecuted. But Maya also changes where her focus becomes singularly on bin Laden, and where anything goes, including those torturous interrogation techniques, in bringing him down. This focus leads to her butting heads with anyone in a position of authority above her that may not agree with her assessment of a situation, with the argument of what is considered acceptable risk or probability in the ultimate prize of bringing down bin Laden always placed on the table.

  • Following the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, Osama bin Laden becomes one of the most-wanted men on the planet. The worldwide manhunt for the terrorist leader occupies the resources and attention of two U.S. presidential administrations. Ultimately, it is the work of a dedicated female operative that proves instrumental in finally locating bin Laden. In May 2011, Navy SEALs launch a nighttime strike, killing bin Laden in his compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan.

  • In the aftermath of the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, the CIA began interrogating suspected Al-Qaeda agents across the globe in a bid to locate the elusive bin Laden. Upon arriving at a CIA black site and witnessing the brutal interrogation tactics firsthand, driven CIA operative Maya (Chastain) aids her unpredictable colleague Dan (Jason Clarke) in gathering the intelligence that will help bring bin Laden to justice. Over the course of the next decade, numerous false leads and dead ends make the search seem more futile than ever. Meanwhile, numerous suicide bombings all across the Middle East and Europe hint that Al Qaeda won't go down without a fight. Then, just when it seemed as if the trail of clues had finally dried up, an old piece of evidence leads Maya to a suspect who may work directly for the man charged with planning the worst act of terrorism ever committed on American soil.


The synopsis below may give away important plot points.



    Two Years After Sept. 11 CIA BLACK SITE:

    Dan (Jason Clarke) walks into a dingy room where a terrorist financier, Ammar (Reda Kateb), is being held captive by several other CIA members wearing balaclavas. He makes the rules clear: If Ammar doesn't look at him when he's being addressed, Dan will hurt him. If Ammar steps off the mat he's on or lies about anything, Dan will also harm him. Dan has Ammar put in further restraints and beckons to one of the masked individuals to follow him outside. He orders his men not to talk to Ammar.

    Outside, the masked individual removes her cover; she is a young CIA agent named Maya (Jessica Chastain). He apologizes for how intense the interrogation is because she has only recently come from Washington. Dan explains that their process takes a while because Ammar needs to know how helpless he is. He offers to get her a coffee but she tells him that they should go back in. He offers her back a balaclava but she declines, asking if Ammar is ever getting out. "Never" says Dan.

    The pair go back in and Dan tells him that Ammar needs to understand his situation. He knows all about Ammar, had plenty of opportunities to kill him, but let him live so they could have this talk. Ammar screams that Dan is nothing more than a garbage man for his corporation but Dan retorts that Ammar is a terrorist who helped finance the September 11th attack in the USA and was caught with explosives in his house when they came for him. However, Dan also makes it clear he doesn't want to talk about Sept. 11 and he wants to know about the Saudi Group. Ammar refuses to talk so Dan's men set up mats as Dan forces him to the ground. Maya hands Dan a bucket and a towel so that Dan can water board him. He asks for an email and demands to know when was the last time Ammar saw bin Laden. At the end of the session, Dan makes it clear that in the end everyone breaks.

    Maya sits in a waiting room. Dan brings their boss, station chief Joseph Bradley (Kyle Chandler), to meet her. She mentions that what she saw was "a bit fucked up" and Bradley is surprised, having assumed that she volunteered for this position. Bradley buzzes her into a secure wing and Dan asks if Maya is ready, but Bradley just points out that the CIA needs to break in the next generation. Maya settles into her desk and waits until she is brought into a small conference room where fellow CIA agents Jessica (Jennifer Ehle), Jack (Harold Perrineau), Thomas (Jeremy Strong), and J.J. (J.J. Kandel) are working on the latest intelligence reports. Dan points out that Ammar is withholding on the Saudi Group while Jessica gives updates on the latest leads. Maya points out that some of their assumptions are based on pre-9/11 behavior rendered moot by the invasion of Afghanistan.

    Morning prayers wake Maya from an uneasy sleep on her couch. She and Dan check on Ammar, still suspended by rope and deprived of sleep using heavy metal music. Dan pulls up a chair and seats Ammar in it, providing him with a bottle of fruit juice and some food. He asks Ammar about the Saudi Group and Ammar insists that he only handles money and that he doesn't know who the guys that he finances are. Dan kicks the chair out from under Ammar and has Ammar pulled up ripping down his pants to show that he has shit himself. Dan and the other agents leave, putting Maya alone in the room with Ammar. Ammar tells Maya that Dan is an animal and begs her for help. She tells him that he can help himself by being truthful. Dan returns with a dog collar and forces it around Ammar's neck, suggesting he's Dan's dog and needs to be walked. He drags him over to a box; a very confined spot, smaller than a coffin. Dan threatens to put Ammar in there if Ammar doesn't tell him about the impending attack. Ammar starts screaming days of the week but not a location, so Dan forces him into the box and leaves him there.

    May 29, 2004.

    A group of Al Qaeda terrorists unload guns on civilians in Khobar, Saudi Arabia, targeting non-Muslims and Americans. Jessica, Dan, and Maya watch the footage in the aftermath. Jessica tells Dan that it's not on him but Dan insists that since Ammar is their prisoner the deaths are on him and Maya. Jessica points out that there are still other plots in motion that they can wring out of Ammar, including a planned attack in the London-Heathrow area. Maya realizes that since Ammar has been in complete isolation, they can lie about the outcome of the attack and claim that it was thwarted by Ammar in his sleep deprived state.

    Ammar is brought out of his confinement and informed that his intel was good. Dan asks what Ammar did after the invasion. Ammar says the choice was to fight or run, and he wanted to kill Americans. He continues to talk about the members of the AQ cell but in vague terms until Dan makes it clear that he will put Ammar back in the box if Ammar doesn't start naming names. Ammar spills all the details he can including that his uncle once worked for Osama bin Laden and that Ammar had seen him in Karachi with a letter from the shah which said to keep working on the jihad, to keep it renewed for a hundred years. Finally Ammar gives them a name: Abu Ahmed.

    Part 2: ABU AHMED

    Maya watches a computer monitor and studies old interrogation tapes looking at each of the suspects and studying their stories. Allegedly, bin Laden uses a complex network of carriers to relay messages to his supporters. She takes a break to make some food and Jessica walks in to ask how the search for the needle in the haystack is going. Jessica suggests that at the end of the day, everyone can be swayed with money an idea that Maya questions since it doesn't fit the motivations of a jihadist. But Jessica retorts that the weaker members would be swayed with money.

    Putting on a dark-colored wig to conceal her red hair, Maya is escorted to a CIA Black Site in Poland. Hakim (Fares Fares), a fellow agent and interpreter, brings her to their prisoner. They ask him a few questions and he claims that he had contact with a man known only as Fahraj. Maya is suspicious that the suspect is simply making it up until the prisoner names all of Fahraj's children. He confirms that there was a network in place to pass messages on. Maya takes this information back to Bradley and gives him a report. Bradley points out that her hunt for Abu Ahmed has been fruitless because she doesn't know his real name or where to find him. She retorts that the fact that everyone has heard of Abu Ahmed means that he is important. He tells her to let him know when there's actionable intelligence so that they can order a strike.

    London, England. July 7, 2005.

    A double-decker bus explodes. News footage of this latest AQ attack plays out on Bradley's computer monitor and in Maya's kitchen. At Bagram Air Force Base in Afghanistan, Dan feeds a monkey from his ice cream cone when he is informed that his detainee is ready. Maya is escorted into an ISI Detention Center in Pakistan. Her detainee is cooperative and tells her everything she wants to know about Abu Ahmed a most trusted courier who cannot be found because he is one of the disappeared ones.

    A man has an object strapped to his leg and is told, God willing, they will not have to use it. We follow the man as he walks through a complex where children are playing. His stroll is observed by Dan. Individuals dressed like Muslim woman in all black follow him as he goes to meet with Fahraj. The Muslim women are revealed to be soldiers who grab Fahraj and swarm him rifles pointed at his chest. Bradley presents Maya with paperwork and tells her that she has a one-on-one with Fahraj.

    Dan escorts Fahraj to his cage; a private cell with barbed wire around the sides. Dan says that he's bad news for men like Fahraj and that Dan isn't going to help him, he's going to break him. Asked if he's hungry, Fahraj has a tube shoved down his throat and blended food is forced down his throat. He is a difficult prisoner so Maya asks Dan if he will take a crack at Fahraj but he refuses, saying he's done this long enough. He's getting sent back to Washington and do something normal. He asks her to come back with him and be his "Number 2" but she says she won't find Abu Ahmed from DC. Dan warns her that politics are changing and that she needs to make sure she's not the last one "holding the dog collar." He also warns her that since everyone knows her in Pakistan she's going to need to start watching her back.

    September 20, 2008 Marriott Hotel, Islamabad, Pakistan.

    Jessica waits at a table and waves to Maya as she arrives still attached to her phone. Maya apologizes for being late because of the check points. Jessica reminds Maya that they are socializing and pours her a glass of wine. Maya makes it clear that Abu Ahmed's mystique confirms his importance when a bomb goes off outside the Marriott destroying most of the interior. Maya and Jessica struggle to find an exit, passing numerous staff and diners who have either been killed or wounded by the bomb. A truck outside had been stopped at a check point and carried explosives which the driver detonated.

    Part 3: THE MEETING

    Tribal Territories, Pakistan: A meeting of bin Laden's inner circle occurs while someone records it. Jessica is ecstatic, telling Maya that the Jordanians have a mole. She shows Maya the video of the meeting and explains that a Jordanian doctor has made it into the inner circle. Bradley doesn't buy it but the Jords claimed that money and patriotic duty would be enough to sway him from bin Laden and the jihad. Maya points out that the guy is likely lying & they just have to meet him face-to-face. She helps Jessica convince Bradley to approve the operation.

    Jessica tries to get the doctor to come to Islamabad but the doctor refuses on the grounds that traveling out of the Muslim world would make him appear to be a flight risk. An interview of Obama talking about America's moral stature plays in the background as Jessica tells Maya that the doctor would be willing to meet with Jessica in the Tribal territories. Maya points out that as a white woman Jessica would definitely be kidnapped. They brainstorm with a fellow agent who suggests Camp Chapman in Afghanistan as a safe area of compromise.

    On the phone with Maya, Jessica decorates a cake for the doctor. Maya laughs and points out that Muslims don't celebrate with cake. Jessica scolds her for being so literal and invites Maya out. Maya declines - it is Jessica's lead and she deserves to run the show.

    Jessica meets with a CIA agent John for drinks and they toast the doctor, their first big break since 9/11. She's cross-checked all the information that they've been provided with and it checks out. The money - $25 million buys a new life. John posits that the doctor is exaggerating his access but Jessica points out that in 6 months to a year, the doctor could be treating bin Laden. With the money on the table, the doctor will flip - or they'll kill him.

    Jessica and the other interrogators wait out in the base and everyone is on edge. Jessica is excited about the meeting but the doctor is late. When he looks like a no-show, a car appears on the horizon and gets stopped at a check point. Jessica insists that he be ushered through the check point without being searched per the agreement they had made beforehand. The car is driven in and an old man gets out. When the soldiers ask him to take his hand out of his pockets, he begins to mumble "Allahu Akbar" and detonates a bomb killing everyone in the vicinity including Jessica and John.

    Maya hears the news about the bombing and is distraught. Several co-workers come and talk to her, giving her updates including news that a detainee has confirmed Abu Ahmed as dead. Maya is on the edge of a breakdown. That night, Jack approaches her to console her about Jessica's death and asks what shes going to do now. She tells Jack that she's going to smoke out everyone involved in the operation and kill bin Laden.

    George (Mark Strong) arrives to brief Maya and her co-workers in the aftermath of the bombing, pointing out that they are losing the fight against their enemy. He yells that they "haven't done shit"; killing four of the 20 members of bin Laden's inner circle is a terrible success rate. He harshly demands they do their jobs and bring him people to kill.

    Maya is given a file on a man called Ibrahim Sayeed whose extended family was involved in terrorist activities. She is told that it was a lead that had been on the back burner for a while as a result of all the white noise. Maya goes over the Abu Ahmed files one more time and realizes that Sayeed and Abu Ahmed have many similar facial features due to their family relations. Maya calls Dan in Washington and points out that Abu Ahmed might not be dead since the three eldest brothers looked alike, the picture they've been associating with him is wrong. Abu Ahmed is still in play. She asks him to get the Sayeed family's phone number.

    Dan goes to talk to The Wolf (Fredric Lehne), a shadowy high-ranking official in the U.S. government, and requests a couple hundred thousand dollars to break open Maya's lead. The Wolf tells Dan that there is a lot of oversight going on and that they will not stop until they have a body, so Dan makes a deal he ran some of the ops that are currently under question if the Wolf backs him financially, he will return the favor by defending the methods used to an oversight committee.

    Kuwait City, Kuwait.

    Dan meets with one of his highly placed contacts and buys him a Lamborghini in exchange for the phone number. Maya meets with Larry (Edgar Ramirez) from Ground Branch and has him start hunting for Abu Ahmed. Larry and Hakim go for a drive in the city and begin to trace the identity of the Sayeed brother who is likely Abu Ahmed.

    In the aftermath of an attempted car bombing in NYC, Maya tries to talk to Bradley about the ground surveillance on the caller which Bradley says they don't have. Bradley wants to dismiss her lead because it is not relevant. He doesn't care about bin Laden, he only cares about stopping the next attack. Their goal is to protect the homeland, but Bradley points out that Maya's lead is a "fucking facilitator." Maya threatens Bradley telling him to give her the team she needs or send her back to DC and face a hearing before congress to be the first station chief to be called before congress for subverting the effort to find and kill Bin Laden. Bradley tells her she's crazy but gives the order.

    Jack approaches Maya in a bar and gives her a cell phone her suspect bought a new phone and they cloned a copy so that whenever his phone rings this cloned phone will ring as well. Hakim, Larry, and a third agent follow the signal on the phone in Pakistan. After briefly being stopped and threatened by locals, they drive away and are able to find the owner of the cell phone. They ID him and photograph his vehicle.

    A crowd of protesters outside the CIA facility in Pakistan protest Bradley having been named in a lawsuit by the family of a victim of a drone strike by the ISI. Bradley is recalled to the United States to be removed from his position. Maya tells him that the ISI fucked him, but he says nothing.

    Larry and Hakim follow the suspects vehicle to a compound. As Maya leaves her house, a pair of terrorists emerge and open fire on her vehicle. The bulletproof windshield protects her and she reverses back into her driveway while the gate closes behind her, preventing her assassins from finishing the job. The new station chief points out that she is now on a list and once someone is on a terrorists list they don't get off. When Maya is given information on the compound, she realizes that is likely where bin Laden is holed up.

    Going up the chain of command, Maya meets with George and another analyst named Steve (Mark Duplass). Steve takes her into a private conference room to discuss what she is about to present to the Director of the CIA. He asks Maya if the Pakistanis are involved but Maya points out that bin Laden has no reason to seek the protection of the Pakistanis since they tried to have him killed. The Director (James Gandolfini) arrives and Steve begins his presentation with George answering the Director's questions; the house is about a mile away from the Pakistanis equivalent to West Point. Maya corrects Georges estimation by saying 8/10ths of a mile The Director asks who Maya is and she says she's the "motherfucker who found" the house.

    Maya goes to Georges office and writes on the see-through partition "21", as in the number of days since they've found the house that George has not green-lit an operation. Soon 21 becomes "52". Steve shows satellite imagery of the compound and points out that there are two males and three females which means that there is likely a third family in the house, based on Muslim traditions. George meets with the head of the NSA (Stephen Dillane) who questions as to how they know bin Laden is in the compound. George assesses all their attempts and the actions of the third, unidentified male, and points out that they are professional attempts to avoid detection. The only people who behave like this are at the head of al-Qaeda. The NSA head points out that there's a 40% chance it's a head of al-Qaeda but it could easily be a drug dealer. George points out that they can't ask anyone since the detainee program went to hell.

    Day 100.

    George meets with the NSA head again, stating that their target can't be a drug dealer since he does nothing related to heroin production and sends messengers to two cities highly associated with al-Qaeda. After the meeting, George approaches the NSA head and points out he doesn't have the rhythm of the politics. The NSA head points out that if it were political he'd just tell George to go fuck himself instead, this operation is pure risk. The NSA head says the operation may be shakier than when George's predecessor pitched WMDs in Iraq. George asks him how they can quantify the risk of not making a move. The NSA head says that he's not giving the go-ahead but that the President would like to hear options.

    Area 51, Nevada Air Force Base.

    George, Dan, and Maya are flown out to meet with SEAL Team Six and look at several helicopters being refitted to be immune to radar. Team Six thinks they will be going up against Gaddafi in Libya but Maya explains that they are actually going after "UBL"; Usama bin Laden. Justin (Chris Pratt) is skeptical because he was part of a mission back in 2007 that cost them several team members and was a ghost. Patrick (Joel Edgerton) the squad leader expresses his skepticism, but Maya makes it clear that Team Six will be the "canaries" sent in; they will find bin Laden and kill him for her since she can't get authorization to simply drop a bomb on the place.

    Day 129.

    The CIA Director calls a meeting with George, Dan, Maya, The Wolf, and a consultant named Jeremy (John Barrowman), and they try and determine how accurate their intel is. Dan says there's a 60% chance there's a high-level target in the house he doesn't know if it's bin Laden. George says 80% but Jeremy asks Maya what she thinks. Maya says 100% which impresses Jeremy and the Director. When they leave the room, the Director says they're all cowed. Jeremy says that Maya is "fucking smart", but the Director says: "we're all fucking smart".

    Maya eats lunch in a CIA cafeteria and the CIA Director approaches her. He asks her how long she's been with the CIA and she tells him that she was recruited out of high school so she's been working for them for 12 years. He asks her what else she's done for the CIA aside from her search for bin Laden. She says she's done nothing else but that. He smiles and says she certainly has a flair for it. He asks her if she knows why she was recruited by the CIA. For some reason she is not able to answer that question.

    Part 4: THE CANARIES

    May 1, 2011. Forward Operating base, Afghanistan:

    Stealth choppers are being refitted for the mission. Patrick, Justin, and the rest of SEAL Team Six clean their weapons and fool around. Hakim and Maya are on site to oversee the operation. Maya watches Patrick and Justin play horse shoes and discuss whether or not the operation is concrete. Patrick points out that Maya's confidence convinces him that this intelligence is accurate. Maya gets a call from George; it's happening tonight.

    Team Six board the three helicopters and fly out toward the compound. When they arrive, one of the helicopters is caught in a severe updraft and it crash lands onto a section of the compound. The soldiers are a little banged up but they are alive. They exit and begin to go through the compound.

    Going from building to building, the SEALs kill anyone who goes for a gun, all the men and a few women. In one case they call out a name, "Khalid", until a man reappears in the stairwell where he fled. They round up the kids and put them together in a room with the women. While more and more local people head toward the compound, Hakim walks out and tells the approaching crowd, first with a megaphone and then without, that they will be killed unless they stop. They do not stop until he repeats his order in English. Justin finds an office loaded with files and computers, an intelligence jackpot.

    Patrick and the others continue through the main building. Jared, one of the other soldiers, is approaching the third floor and softly calls out "Osama" repeatedly until a man appears. He quickly takes a shot and the man falls. Patrick walks up to the body and plants a few more bullets into it, removing his mask and radioing in that they have a possible positive ID. He takes a picture and they put him in a body bag. Their Squad commander radios in and tells them that they have six minutes to get back to the helicopters with the body and whatever intel they can seize as the Pakistan air force is responding to the crash.

    Maya receives confirmation that the plan worked with the code phrase "Geronimo for God and country". The SEALs grab what they can and escape to the remaining two helicopters. The downed helicopter is rigged with explosives and they take off and detonate (so the cloaking software and other advanced technology aboard can't be seized). The helicopters return to base and Patrick is congratulated for running a successful operation. Maya is presented with the body and the intelligence they seized. The SEALs congratulate themselves while Maya goes in to unzip the body bag, confirming that bin Laden is dead.

    A plane is waiting for Maya on the tarmac and she is told that she is the only passenger; she can go wherever she wants. The pilot comments that she must be really important, but he doesn't know what she's done. As the plane's hangar door closes, Maya begins to cry.

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