Kathryn Bigelow and Mark Boal were knee-deep in preparing the follow-up to their Oscar-winning "The Hurt Locker," a film that would chronicle the manhunt for Osama bin Laden, his escape in Tora Bora and the vanishing trail of the world's most wanted man.
"Then history changed," says Bigelow.
After a team of Navy SEALs killed bin Laden in his compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan, on May 2 last year, the director Bigelow and Boal, a journalist turned screenwriter, set about remaking their film. Whereas most films start with a concept or a dramatic arc, Boal and Bigelow built "Zero Dark Thirty" one source at a time, piecing together a narrative out of recent history shrouded in secrecy.
The approach — a marriage of Boal's reporting and Bigelow's visceral action — has made "Zero Dark Thirty" a lightning rod. Though Sony's Columbia Pictures won't release it until Dec. 19 in New York and Los Angeles with a national release to follow on Jan. 11, it has already been hailed as the best film of the year, spawned a Pentagon investigation and elicited op-eds that say the film exaggerates the efficacy of torture.
"Zero Dark Thirty," which introduces itself as "based on firsthand accounts of actual events," is a new kind of timely fusing of filmmaking and journalism — what Bigelow calls "an imagistic version of living history."
Beginning with a black screen and a harrowing cacophony of voices from Sept. 11, "Zero Dark Thirty" unfolds like a decade-long revenge drama, depicting the sometimes ugly, sometimes cunning pursuit of bin Laden. The story isn't told through politicians or public sentiment, but via ferocious CIA officers (Jessica Chastain, Jason Clarke), modeled on the real if anonymous people — the boots-on-the-ground — who led the hunt.
Many film critics believe "Zero Dark Thirty" will repeat the Academy Awards feat of "The Hurt Locker," which won both best picture and best director for Bigelow— the first such win for a female filmmaker.
But it has also stirred up considerable controversy, and some claim it's too journalistic — that the filmmakers learned of confidential identities and details in their liaisons with the military.
It began when the conservative watchdog group Judicial Watch obtained records from the Defense Department and the CIA that detailed meetings in which Under Secretary of Defense for Intelligence Michael Vickers allegedly provided the identity of the commander of SEAL Team 6 — the unit that killed bin Laden — and of tactical planning on the raid. Homeland Security Committee Chairman Peter King, R-N.Y., then raised questions over the making of the film. The Pentagon and CIA have conducted internal investigations into the matter.
"If anything, I'm much more concerned than I was originally," says King, citing an ongoing investigation with the Defense Department. "People in the military were being pressured to cooperate with Hollywood and Hollywood was given access to areas of personnel it shouldn't have access to."
The White House, which some claimed was eager to glamorize President Obama's role in the raid, has called the claims false. (Obama's ordering of the raid isn't even depicted in the film.) Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, the former CIA director who's played by James Gandolfini in the film, told the Senate in June that no unauthorized information was provided to the filmmakers.
Lt. Col. James Gregory, a Defense Department spokesman, said the hour-long meeting with Boal and Bigelow was part of a "system that has been in place for many, many years" to ensure Hollywood has the necessary background to represents the military accurately.
"The Department of Defense routinely provides information to reputable filmmakers," says Gregory. "In this case, one meeting occurred where we provided some strategic context and explored possibilities of providing some assistance. However, no assistance was ever provided to the filmmakers."
"We got caught up in an election year," says Boal, who denies receiving classified information and says he has not participated in any subsequent investigations.
With her ninth film, the 61-year-old Bigelow seems to have — in her collaboration with Boal — found the subjects to match her long-held interest in violence and visceral storytelling. After films like the action flick "Point Break" and the cyber thriller "Strange Days," Bigelow is clearly now drawn to dramatizing the lives of those toiling for the U.S. on the front lines of war and terrorism.
"The opportunity to humanize an environment that works in the shadows and humanize a work force that has a very important job that is sort of opaque to the general public is exciting," says Bigelow, whose "Hurt Locker" captured the adrenaline rush of a bomb squad expert in the Iraq War.
In "Zero Dark Thirty" (the title is taken from the military term for 30 minutes after midnight, when the raid took place), obsessive tip gathering, brutal interrogations at "black sites" and high-tech geo-tracking culminate in a recreation of the raid in Abbottabad, for which a full-scale copy of bin Laden's compound was built in Jordan. Bigelow, with cinematographer Greig Fraser, outfitted cameras with night-vision goggles to mimic the experience of the SEALs.
Scenes of torture have been one of the film's biggest talking points. Though CIA detainees have been said by Dianne Feinstein, head of the Senate Intelligence Committee, not to have played a part in the intelligence gathering that led to killing bin Laden, a detainee is shown in the film to help lead to identifying bin Laden's courier. When Obama shuts down the detainee program, CIA officers complain in the film about intelligence drying up. Some, like New York Times columnist Frank Bruni, have claimed the film is thus pro-torture.
The filmmakers hope the movie is seen as being straightforward and sans agenda — an analytical history that asks the audience "to lean into their own conclusions," says Bigelow. The intended perspective, she says with relish, is: "On the ground, in the center of that hunt."
"What better place to be?" says Bigelow. "It's where I wanted to be. I wanted to put the audience right in the middle of it and keep it as subjective and immediate and visceral and primal as I possibly could."
Clarke, an Australian actor, is gaining acclaim for his physical performance as a CIA officer carrying out the interrogations amid the oft-repeated directive to "protect the homeland." He menaces to a battered, pulpy detainee: "This is what defeat looks like, bro. Your jihad is over."
While various accounts have suggested a handful of particularly key CIA officers — including a female officer — tracked down bin Laden, "Zero Dark Thirty" focuses on one, named Maya in the movie and played by Chastain. Many moviegoers will come out of the film wondering if that unknown female agent played as large of a role as "Zero Dark Thirty" suggests. The actress believes Maya is "100 percent accurate," though Boal tempers that, saying, "it's a movie."
"There's a narrative imperative once you start to focus on an individual, that you see everything through that individual's eyes," he says. "It's not untruthful. But there were a lot of people that contributed to this and there were a lot of other women, for example, that contributed to this who are represented in truncated fashion."
The film doesn't pertain to have all the answers, just some of the facts. It ends not with flag-waving but with a question. The conversation started by "Zero Dark Thirty," it would seem, has only just begun.