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Film / Zero Dark Thirty

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"I'm going to smoke everyone involved in this op and then I'm going to kill bin Laden."

Zero Dark Thirty is a military thriller directed by Kathryn Bigelow based 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, Édgar Ramírez, 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.

This work provides examples of:

  • Action Film, Quiet Drama Scene: Inverted. The film is a political thriller about the hunt for Bin Laden, occasionally punctuated by intense action scenes. Most of the action is compressed into a twenty-minute raid in the ending, and even then, firefights are only seconds long.
  • Action Survivor: Maya is an analyst, not an officer who works in the field. When a terrorist cell in Pakistan identifies her as a key target and attempts to assassinate her, she barely survives by backing up her car behind a bulletproof gate and some support from the guard on duty. The assassins get away.
  • Actor Allusion:
  • Affably Evil: Dan's primary tactic seems to be to appear this way to detainees, switching between being friendly and casual with them and being implicitly threatening (threats he doesn't have a problem fulfilling).
  • All Muslims Are Arab: The film received some controversy from Pakistani audiences for, among other things, portraying community elders speaking in Arabic instead of their native Pashtun.
  • All There in the Script: 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 Maya and the SEAL team first see the secret stealth Blackhawk helicopters used in the raid. 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.
  • An Ass-Kicking Christmas: The Camp Chapman attack sequence (December 30, 2009). The only clues about it happening around Christmas time are a panel with the date, and a Christmas tree appearing in the back of Camp Chapman's mess hall.
  • Badass Boast:
    • "I'm gonna smoke everyone involved in this op, and then I'm gonna kill bin Laden".
    • "I'm the motherfucker who found this place. Sir."
    • "For God and Country" after bin Laden's death.
  • Based on a True Story: Some of the details of the film are based on the hunt for Osama bin Laden from 2001-2011.
  • 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.
  • Big Bad:
    • Osama bin Laden, of course.
    • 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 eventually played with: when the CIA zeroes in on Osama's compound, they attempt to gain as much information as they can. However, their high-tech surveillance is stymied by mundane, low-tech security at the compound. A briefing states that attempts to place a camera or a bug on the property would be easily defeated by the compound's thick walls. Trees and bushes provide cover from satellites and drones. Bin Laden's courier only returns occasionally to the property, and even then, it took extraordinary luck to track him down in a crowded marketplace.
  • 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 spending her entire adult life so far pursuing one man.
  • Black-and-Gray Morality: A relatively dark shade of grey at that. One of the film's main themes is the lengths America will go to prevent terror attacks, including torture, and the film does not take a concrete position on the effectiveness or morality of the practice.
  • Boom, Headshot!: How the SEA Ls take out Bin Laden.
  • 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 bag at him and tell him to help ransack the place for any intel they can find.
  • 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 and word choice even as the brutality of the interrogation escalates.
  • Cloud Cuckoo Lander: Dan is an absolutely ruthless interrogator while he's on the job, but off it, he does things like feed ice cream to his pet monkeys and later quits being an interrogator with the joking excuse that 'he's seen too many naked guys'.
  • Close on Title: No opening titles at all, in fact.
  • 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.
  • A Day in the Limelight: Jessica is featured more prominently while pursuing her lead, the Jordanian doctor.
  • Death from Above: One of the options for taking out Bin Laden that is discussed is a missile strike on him while he's out for a walk in his garden. This was nixed because for all they were certain there was someone important, likely Bin Laden, in there, it was not enough to justify a missile strike in another ostensibly allied country.
  • 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. She lets absolutely nothing stop her in her hunt for Bin Laden, and gradually shifts from being a determined and focused young woman to an intensely dedicated pursuer of the world's most wanted terrorist, sacrificing everything in her life to take him out.
  • Double Tap: During the raid on Bin Laden's compound, the SEALs shoot targets again once they're down, through the heart.
  • Enhanced Interrogation Techniques: The movie depicts the use of torture on suspects and detainees as part of the hunt for Bin Laden.
  • The Faceless: Osama bin Laden. We never get a good look at him, not even during the Abbottabad raid.
  • Family-Values Villain: Bin Laden and Abu Ahmed live in the compound with their wives and children.
  • Fiery Redhead: Maya by the second half of the film, when she's had enough of her superiors' dismissive attitude.
  • Foregone Conclusion:
    • 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.
  • Friendless Background: After Jessica establishes that Maya does not have a boyfriend, she asks Maya if she has any friends. Maya says nothing.
  • 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 necessary.
  • 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 two U.S. Presidents who sat in the White House during the investigation also never appear in person. We know that it's Bush Jr. and Obama, but in keeping with the chain of command, the CIA agents (except the Director) only talk to members of their staff, never directly to the POTUS.
  • 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, certainly not helped by Americans with guns shooting up the place.
  • 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 afterward 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 at an angle, or partially visible, preventing the audience from getting a clear look at the guy.
  • Improbable Age: If Maya looks a bit young to be a CIA agent in the beginning, it's because she was recruited out of high school.
  • 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.
  • The Lancer: Maya to Dan at first. The head of the CIA's Special Activities Division team in Pakistan (played by Edgar Ramirez) serves as this to Maya once Dan leaves the country.
  • 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 a 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. note 
    • 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 beards, and that his generic name was only part of his real name. All of this information came from overlooked files.
  • Loud of War: This is one of Dan's many torture methods, one of the few portrayed that is in actual use. He leaves hard rock music at a very high volume all night inside Ammar's cell.
  • Lower-Deck Episode: The movie focuses on the CIA operatives and Seal Team members who take down Bin Laden. James Gandolfini as the unnamed CIA Director is the highest ranking person we see in the entire movie.
  • 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) Dan. After her death, it's revealed she's the mother of three children.
    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.
  • Moody Trailer Cover Song: The trailer is set to a choir version of "Nothing Else Matters".
  • 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.
  • Only One Name: The characters lucky enough to get names at all don't have their surnames revealed. Likely intentional to reflect the anonymity of those involved in the operations.
  • 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.
    • For the audience, every time the film gives an exact date and location (as opposed to "Undisclosed Location," "CIA black site," etc.) it's usually a signal that a terrorist attack is imminent
  • 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 waterboard 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.
  • Plucky Comic Relief: Justin serves as this to Patrick in the SEAL team.
  • Pummeling the Corpse: An unnamed SEAL kills Osama bin Laden with a single shot in the climax. Afterward, two other SEALs fire into his corpse a few more times.
  • Reality Is Unrealistic:
    • 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 after he married a Muslim woman (although a Washington Post article about him specifically notes he does not keep a prayer rug in his office).
    • During the climactic raid, Pakistani civilians neighboring the compound start to approach in curiosity. The SEAL team's translator tries to warn them off in untranslated Arabic, but to no avail. It's not until he cries out "Get away! They will kill you!" in English that the civilians stop. While recognized by Pakistan, Arabic is not widely spoken in the country, but English is one of its official languages. It's quite reasonable that those civilians would have been able to understand English warnings.
  • 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.
  • Reasonable Authority Figure: CIA director Leon Panetta is portrayed this way, despite his own skepticism.
  • "The Reason You 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 triple-agent and kills Jessica and the team with her in a suicide bombing.
  • Revealing Cover-Up:
    • What the CIA agents notice about their primary suspect is that his manner of contacting people was so obviously careful to avoid being followed that he stood out.
    • Similarly, the anti-surveillance measures at the compound; absolutely everyone agrees that the house screams Bad Guy. They're just skeptical about whether the Bad Guy is actually Osama bin Laden - it could be a deposed despot on the run, a paranoid arms dealer, or a low-ranking terrorist with a lot of funding.
  • 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.
  • Shell-Shock Silence: Right after the hotel bombing.
  • Shout-Out: Even Maya knows about Lord of the Rings.
    Maya: So what does this Baluchi guy look like?
    Abu Faraj al-Libbi: Tall, long white beard, thin, walks with a cane.
    Maya: Kinda like Gandalf.
    Abu Faraj al-Libbi: Who?
  • Sound-Only Death: The film opens on 9-1-1 calls during the World Trade Center attacks on September 11th, 2001. No images are shown.
  • So What Do We Do Now?: Quite heavily implied in the final scene. Maya's pilot asks her where she wants to go. She doesn't answer and breaks down in tears.
  • Surprisingly Realistic Outcome:
    • Once the mission to kill Bin Laden is authorized (the length of time it takes to get authorized may also be an example), Maya doesn't go on it. She may be the protagonist, but she is an analyst, not a soldier nor an assassin. She's only on the base in Afghanistan so she can identify Bin Laden (whether dead or alive) when the SEALs return from their mission.
    • There's no epic throw-down with the SEAL Team leader and Bin Laden, no dialogue on conflicting philosophies and justifications. Bin Laden is an elderly man against a team of elite soldiers on a mission. He dies as easily as his Mooks do from shots fired by an unnamed SEAL. The only thing he gets is to be the last one to die.
  • Tempting Fate:
    • The film opens with real telephone calls that were made during the September 11 terrorist attacks. One of them says "A plane has flown in World Trade Center 1, but I'm okay. I'm in World Trade Center 2."
    • Jessica tells the security at Camp Chapman to stand down and let her al-Queda contact come in without a search so that he doesn't get intimidated and leave.
  • Title Drop: 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; it's actually a courier who is suspected to be a direct go-to for Osama.
  • Too Dumb to Live: Jessica waving the Jordanian mole through security without him being checked, saying that it would spook him. The "mole" is actually a suicide bomber, and it gets her killed.
  • 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?" The fact that less dramatic torture techniques were used in a smaller number of instances they were actually employed in the actual pursuit of bin Laden is largely ignored in favor of portraying a more obvious/ham-handed morality play. 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.
  • Visual Title Drop: 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 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.
  • We Have Ways of Making You Talk: US interrogator Dan to a detainee. It doesn't work.
    Dan: I'm not your friend. I'm not gonna help you. I'm gonna break you.
  • 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: Maya 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.
  • Wham Line: It's a Foregone Conclusion for the audience, but it still packs a punch when we hear:
    George: That thing we talked about? It's happening.
    Maya: When?
    George: Tonight.
  • "What Now?" Ending: After Bin Laden is dead, Maya is asked where she wants to go by a military transport pilot. She doesn't answer him.