What are the Real Names of the Characters in Zero Dark Thirty?

Let’s peel back the aliases and look at who these folks really are.

The makers of Zero Dark Thirty used the real name of Adm. Bill McRaven, played by Christopher Stanley (left), but an alias for the CIA officer who helped track Osama bin Laden, played by Jessica Chastain. (Photo: Sony Pictures)

Zero Dark Thirty, the new movie about the CIA’s hunt for Osama bin Laden, premieres nationwide today. The film is in contention for a Best Picture Oscar, and it has already generated a whopping share of controversy

The movie purports to be based on real events. But the filmmakers chose to change the names of most of the major characters, some of whom are or were CIA officers. So, let’s peel back the aliases and look at who these folks really are.

First, there are two characters whose real names are used, either in the credits or in the film itself. 

The first is CIA chief of staff Jeremy Bash, who is credited in the movie only by his first name. He’s also got the distinction of being the only character who’s real name is actually spoken in the film. (The “CIA Director” calls him Jeremy in an elevator.) The chief of staff is played by John Barrowman, who you may recognize as the lead from the BBC sci-fi adventure series Torchwood.

Adm. William McRaven, former head of the Joint Special Operations Command, is also portrayed in the film. But his name is never uttered. He’s just clearly the senior officer in charge after the successful SEAL raid on bin Laden’s compound. He relays word back to Washington that a CIA officer has visually confirmed bin Laden’s identity. Now, this is a little odd, but McRaven is listed in the IMDB credits as “McCraven.” I don’t remember whether the name was also misspelled in the film. Nevertheless, the filmmakers aren’t hiding his identity. McRaven/McCraven is played by Christopher Stanley, aka Betty Draper’s second husband, Henry Francis, on Mad Men.

Now for the aliases. 

“Maya,” the protagonist played by Jessica Chastain (up for a Best Actress Oscar), is based on a real CIA officer whose name hasn’t been revealed. But Greg Miller of the Washington Post has a widely-read piece on what the real Maya is like, and how she differs from her on-screen version. Some at the CIA aren’t too pleased with all the glory she gets in the movie. 

Maya’s close friend at the CIA, “Jessica,” appears to be based on Jennifer Matthews, another real CIA officer who was killed, along with six others working for the agency, in a suicide bombing in Afghanistan in 2009. We profiled Matthews in the magazine in 2010. And Joby Warrick’s book The Triple Agent chronicles Matthews and the bombing. 

Leon Panetta is also protrayed in the film, by James Gandolifini. He is credited as “CIA Director,” and obviously Panetta was in that position at the time of the raid. But the filmmakers also included one distinguishing characteristic of the outgoing CIA chief; namely, his fondness for lobbing the F-bomb. Panetta is famously foul-mouthed, and fiercely proud of it

The true identities of the remaining significant characters are murkier. 

The SEAL who fires the fatal shot at bin Laden could be drawn from Matt Bissonnette, who is the only member of the raid team to have written a book about it, and who did shoot bin Laden. In the film, the SEAL (he is not called Matt) is rather in awe of what he has just done, and seems to grasp, as does one of his buddies, his now indelible role in history. But in his memoir, Bissonnette didn’t cast himself as uniquely heroic or important. 

The filmmakers also didn’t use the name of the “Pakistani doctor” who reportedly helped the CIA try to match the DNA of people living in bin Laden’s compound with the terrorist’s genetic data, which the agency had on file. You barely see the doctor in the movie, but he is Shakil Afridi, and he was profiled recently in GQ by Matthieu Aikins. 

The character “National Security Advisor” looks like an amalgam of John Brennan, the White House counterterrorism adviser, and Tom Donilon, who is actually the National Security Adviser. This is confusing, though. The actor, Stephen Dillane, of the HBO series Game of Thrones, doesn’t sound like Brennan or Donilon, but he sort of acts like Brennan. Gruff. No smiles. He also appears intimately familiar with CIA tradecraft and counterterrorism operations–another reason why this character is probably meant to be Brennan, a former CIA officer and the reported keeper of President Obama’s terrorist kill list. “Game of Drones” anyone? 

The character known as “The Wolf,” a top-level CIA officer (you can tell by his big office) and a practicing Muslim (he prays in said office) must be this man, the chief of the CIA’s Counterterrorism Center, known publicly only as Roger. He “hunts” Al Qaeda. So he’s The Wolf. Get it? 

The character “George” is a rather ambiguous role. He’s the CIA officer in charge of Maya and her team of analysts tracking bin Laden; she harangues him mercilessly over how long it’s taking to get the authorization to go in and kill the fugitive terrorist. George also answers to higher authorities, namely The Wolf. So we’ll count George, played by Mark Strong (who was outstanding in the 2011 remake of Tinker Tailor Solider Spy), as a still anonymous CIA boss who was integral in the hunt–and who’s maybe a little put out by all the attention “Maya” is getting.  

Finally, there’s the detained terrorist, “Ammar,” whose brutal interrogation scenes have generated most of the film’s controversy. (He is subjected to waterboarding, forced to stand for hours on end, stripped of his pants in the presence of a woman, and shut in a wooden box.) I presume this character, who is accused in the movie of funneling money to the 9/11 hijackers, is Ammar al-Baluchi, who is publicly accused of doing just that and is currently on trial in a military commission with four other men, including Khalid Sheik Mohammed, often called the “mastermind” of the 9/11 attacks. In December, the presiding judge ordered that evidence or discussion about any harsh interrogation techniques used on the defendants must be kept secret. This, according to the Los Angeles Times, “despite accusations by human rights groups that the government was trying to hide the fact that the men were tortured.”