The film begins with an American Muslim man named Yusuf (Sheen), formerly named Younger, making a videotape. When FBI Special Agent Helen Brody (Moss) and her team see news bulletins looking for Yusuf, they launch an investigation, which is curtailed when they are summoned to a high school, which has been converted into a black site under military command. They are shown Yusuf's complete tape, where he threatens to detonate three nuclear bombs in separate U.S. cities if his demands are not met.
A special interrogator, "H" (Samuel L. Jackson), is brought in to force Yusuf to reveal the locations of the nuclear bombs. H quickly shows his capability and cruelty by chopping off one of Yusuf's fingers with a small hatchet. Horrified, Special Agent Brody attempts to put a stop to the measures. Her superiors make it clear that the potentially disastrous consequences necessitate these extreme measures. As the plot unfolds, H escalates his methods (with Brody as the "good cop") and Yusuf, trained in resisting torture, maintains his silence. Brody realizes that he allowed himself to be caught and that he is purposely enduring the torture. Yusuf then makes his demands: he would like the President of the United States to announce a cessation of support for "puppet governments" and dictatorships in Muslim countries and a withdrawal of American troops from all Muslim countries. The group immediately dismisses the possibility of his demands being met, citing the United States' declared policy of not negotiating with terrorists.
When Brody accuses Yusuf of faking the bomb threat in order to make a point about the moral character of the United States government, he breaks down and agrees that it was all a ruse. He gives her an address to prove it, but visiting the address triggers a C-4 explosion at a nearby shopping mall, killing 53 people. Angry at the senseless deaths, Brody takes a scalpel and begins cutting Yusuf's chest. It is clear, though, that Yusuf is not afraid. He justifies the deaths by comparing them to the greater number of Muslim deaths by American hands.
H falters in his belief that the bombs' location will be revealed until Yusuf's wife is found and detained.