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, 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. Sony's Columbia Pictures will release it on December 19 in New York and Los Angeles, with a national release on January 11. However, 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.
The film, which introduces itself as "based on firsthand accounts of actual events," is a new kind of timely fusing of film-making and journalism - what Bigelow calls "an imagistic version of living history".
Beginning with a black screen and a harrowing cacophony of voices from September 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), modelled on the real if anonymous people who led the hunt.
"It's a movie about the work force," says Boal, who has spent time embedded with troops in Iraq and written articles for Rolling Stone and Playboy.
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 film-maker.
But it has also stirred up considerable controversy and some claim it is too journalistic - that the film-makers 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 Defence Department and the CIA that detailed meetings in which Under Secretary of Defence 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. The Pentagon and CIA have conducted internal investigations into the matter.
Defence Secretary Leon Panetta, the former CIA director who is played by James Gandolfini in the film, told the Senate in June that no unauthorised information was provided to the film-makers.
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 dramatising the lives of those toiling for the US on the front lines of war and terrorism.
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 hi-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.
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. Some, like New York Times columnist Frank Bruni, have claimed the film is thus pro-torture.
The film-makers hope the movie is seen as being straightforward and without an 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 centre of that hunt".
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