Zero Dark Thirty is a military thriller directed by Kathryn Bigelowbased on the true story of the 10-year hunt for Osama bin Laden. It follows Maya (Jessica Chastain), a CIA operative whose single-minded dedication to and confidence in her mission to find Bin Laden helped propel the hunt forward, even when people started to give up. The film also stars Jason Clarke, Joel Edgerton, Mark Strong, Jennifer Ehle, Kyle Chandler, Edgar Ramirez, Harold Perrineau, Chris Pratt, Stephen Dillane, John Barrowman and James Gandolfini.The film was originally intended to be about the failed attempt to apprehend Bin Laden in the mountains of Tora Bora. Following the announcement of Bin Laden's death at the hands of SEAL Team 6, Bigelow and screenwriter Mark Boal reworked the movie to cover the whole hunt. The film later faced controversy when it appeared as if Boal had been given access to secret information by the Obama administration.
Action Girl: Averted with Maya, who is an analyst instead of an officer who works in the field.
All There in the Manual / Everyone Calls Him : Due to the procedural nature of the screenplay, many of the characters' names are only mentioned in passing (or not at all) while others are only known by their nickname (The Wolf) or title (CIA Director, National Security Advisor).
Area 51: Where they see the helicopters. Notable in being one of the very-very few visits to Area 51 in a film where aliens aren't involved at all - even as an in joke or an aside.
Batman Gambit: Maya and Dan finally get their prisoner to give up information when they bluff him that he suffered short-term memory loss from insomnia and had already spilled the information they needed.
Beam Me Up, Scotty!: Some have quoted Maya as saying "I'm the motherfucker who found Bin Laden" when she instead says "I'm the motherfucker who found this place".
Being Tortured Makes You Evil: More morally grey, but Dan leaves his interrogation post when he's had enough of torture, and Maya grows more and more hardened as her tenure drags on.
For the first half of the film, it's Abu Ahmed, his courier.
Big Brother Is Watching: Maya uses massive amounts of US government satellite photos, surveillance footage and so on in the hunt for bin Laden. It is, however, eventually played with: when they zero in on Osama's compound, they attempt to gain as much information as they can. A briefing states that any overt approach - bugs, RC drones, observers - are both easily defeated by the compound's thick walls. Trees and bushes provide cover from satellites. bin Laden's courier only returns occasionally, and even then, it took extraordinary luck to track him.
Bittersweet Ending: Bin Laden is successfully located and killed. Maya, who refused to drop the hunt even after the rest of the CIA had turned its attention elsewhere, is vindicated, but at the cost of questionable ethics, casualties, bad intel, and the fact she had spent her entire adult life thus far pursuing one man.
But for Me, It Was Tuesday: The SEALs go about the raid with strict professionalism, and don't even seem to realize the importance of what they have done until after it is all over. The leader even asks the (unnamed) SEAL who killed Bin Laden if he even realizes what he just did.
Likewise, at one point the SEAL who first shot bin Laden is stunned by the realization that he shot "the third-floor guy", only for another SEAL to dismissively chuck a camera at him and tell him to get to work, namely photographing the body for ID purposes while the other SEALs ransack the place for any intel they can find.
California Doubling: Jordan and India for Pakistan, which results in some strange things, such as extras speaking Arabic instead of Urdu and more people in traditional dress that you might normally see in Islamabad.
Casual Danger Dialogue: Played with, in that he's not the one in danger, but part of Dan's technique as an interrogator is to maintain a conversational tone or word choice even as the brutality of the interrogation escalates.
Cloud Cuckoo Lander: Dan; he's an absolutely ruthless interrogator while he's on the job, but he also does things like feed ice cream to his pet monkeys.
Comic Book Time: This film covers eight years, from 2003 to 2011 - a fair chunk of time, even to an adult. Despite this, no one but Dan ages visibly - and even then, all he gets is a receding hairline.
Cool Car: To get a Kuwaiti prince's cooperation for a terrorist's mother's phone number, a CIA agent has to offer him a "free" Lamborghini sports car right out of the showroom on top of a promise of no repercussions for squealing.
Darkened Building Shootout: The climax of the film is a real-time depiction of the raid on Bin Laden's safe house, with scenes either shot in darkness or from the perspective of the SEALs, who are wearing Night Vision Goggles. (The CIA cut the power to the compound before the team went in.)
Death from Above: One of the options for taking out Big Laden that is discussed is a missile strike on him while he's out for a walk in his garden.
Death Glare: Maya gives one directed at Dan for claiming there's only "a soft 60 percent" chance that Bin Laden's in the compound.
Death Is Dramatic: Averted. Bin Laden is gunned down just as easily and quickly as the other people in his safe-house, though those keeping score will know that once Khalid is killed, Osama is the only adult male not yet accounted for in the house.
Determinator: All Maya knows in her life is tracking down Bin Laden, even in the face of personal tragedy and dead-end leads.
Double Tap: During the raid on Bin Laden's compound, the SEALs shoot targets again once they're down.
As the film is Based on a True Story, the audience is aware Osama bin Laden was killed by a Navy SEAL team in 2011.
While it didn't get anywhere near the press attention of Bin Laden's death, anyone who followed and remembers the news story of the time will know that Jessica's meeting with her informant won't end well once it's revealed their meeting will be held at Camp Chapman.
Freeze Frame Bonus: For about a second you can see that Maya's desktop on her computer in the CIA headquarters is a picture of her and Jessica together, despite it being several years after her death.
General Failure: Bradley's replacement is introduced as lazy and flippant towards Maya's hunt. Maya has to physically stop him and scream in his face until she gets the resources neccesary.
The Ghost: Bin Laden is this throughout the film, with some people pointing out that for all they know he might already be dead.
The Government: The plot revolves around the search for Bin Laden from within the US government.
Harmful to Minors: Due to Bin Laden's hideout being occupied by two large families, there are a lot of children present during the raid. The SEALs try to keep them quiet and shield them from what's happening, even though they see the dead bodies and start crying.
Heroic BSOD: Maya curls up in the fetal position and does her best to drink herself into oblivion after Jessica is killed in a suicide bombing. This is compounded shortly afterwards by the news that her best lead on Bin Laden is apparently dead.
He Who Fights Monsters: Maya goes from a green CIA recruit, visibly shaken by torture, to someone willing to order the torture and death of others to find Bin Laden.
He Who Must Not Be Seen: Osama Bin Laden's face is either obscured, shown momentarily, or partially visible, preventing the audience from getting a clear look at the guy.
Historical Hero Upgrade: Shortly after Zero Dark Thirty was released, the woman Maya was based on sent an email to her former colleagues, essentially saying that they tried impeding her at every turn, and that she alone deserved credit for finding bin Laden.
It's Personal: Maya, when Jessica is killed in the Chapman bombing. When she speaks to a director, she also mentions several other off-screen friends who died.
Last Place You Look: Maya finally tracked down bin Laden when she realized that the CIA's assumption that he was hiding in some cave in a remote mountain region, surrounded by an army of bodyguards is wrong. In reality, he was hiding in an large house in a semi-urban area with practically only his relatives as his staff. And with the Pakistani equivalent of West Point less than a mile away. *
Part of the reason why bin Laden's courier took so long to track was that CIA didn't take into account the fact that Abu belonged to a big family, and that three of the eldest sons looked very similar, especially with the beard, and that his generic name was only part of his real name. All of this information came from overlooked files.
Married to the Job: It's established that Maya has no boyfriend (or any other kind of "friend"). In contrast, in that same scene we can see Jessica's wedding ring. She also encourages Maya to date (or at least have a one night stand) with Jack. After her death, it's revealed she's the mother of three.
Maya: I'm not that girl that fucks... it's unbecoming.
The Mentor: Dan to Maya, in the first half of the film.
Mood Whiplash: Lots. Jessica and Maya chatting and joking leading directly into the Islamabad hotel bombing. The SEALs joking about Prison Rape, right before the authorization to raid bin Laden's compound comes down the pipe. Dan feeding ice cream to his monkeys and getting it stolen after a very long and uncomfortable torture sequence, and later, joking that he's leaving his post because he's seen too many naked guys.
Nothing Is Scarier: The raid on the compound is a long, extended, very uncomfortable sequence of the SEALs breaching and engaging four militants, with periods of nothing but quiet advancing in-between.
Oh Crap: The head of security at the Afghanistan base, when he realizes Jessica's informant won't take his hand out of his pocket...
Pass the Popcorn: Maya is at one point shown casually talking to Jessica on the phone about the Camp Chapman meeting as she watches a drone strike go down on her computer monitor.
Pet the Dog: Dan, a ruthless interrogator who won't hesitate to use waterboarding or lock a man in a box, feeds ice cream to monkeys and is visibly upset when they have to be killed because of security concerns.
It seems absurd that the CIA would be so eager to talk to the Jordanian mole that they would wave him through the perimeter security and even bake him a birthday cake, but that actually happened albeit the movie pins it more on "Jessica" while portraying the security personnel as more skeptical.
We see Dan in the CIA headquarters ask help from a top CIA official to bust an Islamist network. The official is previously seen conducting a Muslim prayer in his office. This is fact: the CIA official converted to Islam during the manhunt.
Real Life Writes the Plot: The film was going to depict the unsuccessful hunt for Osama Bin Laden culminating in the Battle of Tora Bora, but the successful US commando assassination of the terrorist leader prompted a rewrite to have the whole hunt for the story. The story jumps to after the original script would have taken place.
"The Reason We All Suck" Speech: George gives the entire manhunt team (including himself) a furious dressing-down for their collective failure to do anything more than find 4 of their 20 targets during the entire time they've been looking (by then, it is 2008 - the op has gone on for five years), despite attacks continuing.
Red Herring: The doctor Al-Qaeda is trying to recruit who offers Jessica information on Bin Laden's whereabouts. He's actually a suicide bomber, killing Jessica and the team with her.
Revealing Coverup: The CIA agents notice their primary suspect to follow was that his manner of contacting people is so obviously careful to avoid being followed that he stood out.
Roman à Clef: As nearly every character in this film is based on active personnel in the CIA, Navy SEALs, etc., their names, appearances and personalities were all fictionalized to some extent.
Running Gag: Maya scribbling on the glass office door the number of days Bin Laden's compound was found without taking action, played for both drama and laughs depending on the scene.
Sacrificial Lion: Jessica, one of the main characters, is slain in the Chapman FOB bombing.
Say My Name: When the SEALs raid the compound, they whisper to various militants using their names, trying to get them to reveal their location.
Screw This, I'm Outta Here: Dan is a ruthless and effective interrogator, but he realizes when he's had enough and takes a job back at Langley. He encourages Maya to take the same conclusion.
It's subtle, but it's there. When the SEALs are en route to the compound, there's a shot of a clock in the tent where Maya's waiting, and the local time is 0030.
The film is divided into 6 chapters whose titles appear onscreen: "The Saudi Group", "Abu Ahmed", "The Meeting", "Human Error", "Tradecraft", and "The Canaries". Nearly all of these titles are spoken aloud by a character in the chapters they're named after.
Trailers Always Lie: The first teaser trailer makes it sound like the "ghost" they track is bin Laden - in reality, it's a courier who is suspected to be a direct go-to for Osama.
Torture Always Works: A lot can, and has, been written about whether the film uses this trope. The filmmakers insist the film depicts torture as ineffective, but too many people to ignore have come away from it saying the opposite of this. The point of the torture scenes in the film is really part of a morality play: "Is Maya justified using any means necessary to find Osama bin Laden?" And for a concrete answer, the information that comes on Abu Ahmed is from a non-torture questioning of a militant by the Pakistani government, and overlooked files that shed light on the fact that Abu Ahmed might be another person. The extended torture in the beginning led to nothing, as all it does is lead to a snapped detainee screaming incoherently (and leads to a terror attack that wasn't stopped) and information that is next-to-useless.
Ultimately the claims that the film endorses torture can be boiled down to two viewpoints of its more outspoken opponents, 1) torture is 0% effective 100% of the time and never yields any actionable information and other methods are safer and more reliable, and 2) everyone knows and believes this so anyone who would use or endorse torture is doing it For the Evulz. While the movie displays torture as less effective than other means, it violates point one because while Abu Ahmed was eventually tracked down and found using non-torture methods, a detainee who was at the least sleep-deprived and kept in isolation is the first one to indicate Abu Ahmed might be important, so they wouldn't have been looking for him otherwise, and it shows that other methods can be dangerous and unreliable as well ( the mole that kills Jessica and the others). It also shows that the people using torture are just normal human beings who feel pain and sorrow as well, who honestly believe their methods will yield them what they need to save lives (making them at worst using extreme methods in good faith). Thus because it shows that torture could theoretically 10% effective 1% of the time and that the people who use it aren't always cruel inhuman beasts, it is seen as endorsing torture.
The War on Terror: Details the hunt for the planner of the September 11th, 2001 terrorist attacks on the New York World Trade Center and Pentagon, Osama bin Laden.
The Watson: Maya is the main character, but in many cases it's because she's the thread tying in different sections of the film focusing on Dan, the SAD team, Jessica, and finale SEAL Team Six.
A Wolf In Sheep's Clothing: The mole who commits the suicide bombing at Camp Chapman. The CIA trusts him so much that they let him drive right up the compound's front entrance without passing through the security checkpoints or being searched.
Would Hit a Girl: Besides the attack on Maya when she's driving that results in her being assigned out of Pakistan, during the raid scene when the courier's brother is killed, his horrified wife rushes to his body — it's not clear if she was going for the weapon that he'd dropped — and is promptly shot in the back by a SEAL... who then later reports to another SEAL that "she's going to bleed out".
Would Hurt a Child: She tells a Navy SEAL that she would prefer to drop a bomb on the compound, despite the fact that there were confirmed to be women and kids living there; on the other hand, "the need to produce a body" is the reason according to the movie why SEALs are sent instead.