LOS ANGELES — In 2008, the screenwriter Mark Boal sought an appointment with a retired special-ops agent. Boal was researching a movie about the fruitless search for Osama bin Laden in the caves of Tora Bora six years before, and he wanted insight into how U.S. forces gathered intelligence.
The agent agreed to meet, but under strict conditions. Boal would be kept in the dark about where the encounter would take place until just before, when he’d be given directions, via GPS, to what turned out to be a gas station. The meeting would be brief, and there would be no guarantee of an information exchange.
“I showed up and there’s this guy by the pump wearing sunglasses,” Boal recalled in an interview. “And the first thing he said was, ‘Give me a good reason why I should talk to you.’ And I’m like, ‘Well, nice to meet you too, sir.’” Boal eventually cultivated other sources, acknowledging that as a Hollywood screenwriter it isn’t always easy emulating Bob Woodward.
The zigzag-y process that began at the gas station culminates in the groundbreaking “Zero Dark Thirty,” Boal and director Kathryn Bigelow’s searing dramatization of a different U.S. mission to target Bin Laden that ended successfully last year in Abbottabad, Pakistan.
When Sony Pictures released the tense, dense movie Dec. 19, “Zero Dark Thirty” took its place alongside classics of war cinema such as “The Dirty Dozen,” “Apocalypse Now” and “Saving Private Ryan” while simultaneously redefining the form. Few Hollywood action thrillers have contained so many documentary-style aspirations to truth and urgency — and so quickly after an epochal event, to boot.
And never before has a stone-cold-serious American war drama featured a woman both behind the camera and at its center.
“Zero Dark Thirty,” in other words, could well stand at the vanguard of a new genre: the viscerally human but post-feminist and post-political war film.
Unfolding chronologically over roughly eight years, “Zero Dark” tells of Maya (a determined and increasingly weathered Jessica Chastain). The character — Chastain says she is “100 percent a real person” — works as a mid-level CIA operative at the U.S. embassy in Islamabad. It’s there that, with the help of a seasoned interrogator (Jason Clarke) operating under an ethically questionable U.S. detainee program, she gets wind of an al-Qaida courier she believes is the key to finding Bin Laden.
For its first two hours, Bigelow’s movie follows Maya as she chases down leads across Central Asia, enduring institutional indifference and worse in the quest for the jihad era’s white whale. For the last 35 minutes, “Zero Dark” offers us the fruits of her efforts: the prelude to, and spectacle of, the raid that has Navy SEALs striking Bin Laden’s Pakistan compound at half past midnight (the coded “Zero Dark Thirty”).
The movie, which was just named best picture by the New York Film Critics Circle and the National Board of Review, has an uncommon interest in the nitty-gritty of government intelligence (the closest screen comparison might be “Homeland,” in which another lone-wolf female CIA agent is obsessed with a major terrorist figure). It marries that scut work with the neo-verite imagery of war — night-vision grittiness and in-your-face torture scenes.
“I wanted to peel back the curtain on tactics within the intelligence community and what it would take to find a very sharp needle in a very large haystack,” Bigelow said in an interview. “Then I wanted to show what would happen when they did.”
Making a modern war movie isn’t easy. There are the ambiguities of contemporary conflict to capture. There are the band-of-brothers cliches to avoid. There’s keeping the real and the sensational in balance.
“Zero Dark” faced extra obstacles. Bigelow and Boal — who with 2009’s The Hurt Locker” won a best picture Oscar for depicting an obsessive bomb specialist in Iraq — were keen to make a real-life movie about our inability to capture Bin Laden, a kind of companion piece of existential futility.
Watching coverage of the Bin Laden killing in May 2011, Bigelow described feeling “an obligation to go forward” with a project they had been working on intermittently for nearly three years. But there was a problem. The script she and Boal had been developing had nothing to do with the successful mission. And Boal didn’t want to invent: As a reporter who had written military-themed stories for Playboy and others, he prides himself on incorporating journalism into his films.
So he ripped up his script and hit the pavement to meet with old sources. “I wanted to approach the story as a screenwriter, but do the homework as a reporter,” he said.
Boal had a narrative problem too, since it’s not as if the ending would surprise anyone. His solution was to concentrate on the mechanics — what circuitous path led to Bin Laden and who was brave or contrarian enough to follow it. “We know how ‘Lincoln’ ends and it’s still pretty interesting to watch,” Boal said.
Meanwhile, the clock was ticking. In the works were books and films about the hunt “SEAL Team Six: The Raid on Osama bin Laden,” a hastily produced affair from Nicholas Chartier, Bigelow and Boal’s estranged producer on “The Hurt Locker.”
The filmmakers picked up the pace. “Zero Dark” began shooting nine months after Boal started his script and is reaching theaters just 10 months after that. It’s a peculiar combination: a film with the heft of a slow-cooker but the timing of a cable-television headline-chaser.
“Zero Dark” was also facing a political tempest. In the summer of 2011, Rep. Peter T. King, R-N.Y., chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee, called for an investigation into whether the Obama administration had given filmmakers access to classified information. Judicial Watch, a conservative watchdog group, has added its own questions. (Boal and Bigelow have maintained that the administration did not give them any special access and that they followed the proper procedures with government agencies.)
But perhaps the biggest challenge “Zero Dark” faced was internal. Bigelow wanted the film, budgeted at a bit more than $40 million and financed by emerging film magnate Megan Ellison, to feel as authentic as possible, giving filmgoers the sense they were witnessing the raid as it happened. She began to discard film conventions.
To re-create a view through night-vision goggles, most directors would shoot normally, then doctor the images in postproduction. Bigelow decided to rig the cameras themselves with night-vision technology so we would see the raid much as the SEALs did. “There’s a reason you don’t hear about it done this way — it’s a lot more risky,” the film’s cinematographer, Greig Fraser, said.
Rather than build Bin Laden’s compound in pieces on a sound stage, Bigelow decided to re-create it in its entirety in the Jordanian desert. That allowed her a big advantage: Instead of cutting and pasting the scene together in the edit room, she could have the actors move through the space in just a few continuous takes, enhancing the realism. Crew members began analyzing photos and diagrams, from the labyrinthine layout to the Pakistani art on the walls.
“There were some white-knuckle moments,” Bigelow said of the decision to build a replica of the stone compound from scratch in just 10 weeks. “We wanted the movie to feel as naturalistic as possible. But naturalism takes work.”
The crew also scoured the Web to learn more about interrogation and torture. A photo or an account was parsed then re-created, so that when a detainee is choked or beaten (faint-hearted viewers, take note) the event is portrayed as accurately as possible.
“You couldn’t do any of this making ’Apocalypse Now,’” said Jeremy Hindle, “Zero Dark’s” production designer. “It would have taken you two years of going to a single research library to see sanctioned photos. (But) you’d be amazed at what’s on the personal websites of soldiers these days.” Trawling the Web for torture images sufficiently alarmed the Jordanian government that for a brief period they appeared to shut down the crew’s Internet access.
In front of the camera, things were getting just as intense. As a grizzled interrogator, Clarke was called upon to simulate waterboarding and half-naked beatings. The actor and one on-screen victim developed a set of safe words. “It was, if you heard the other guy saying your name, you stopped right away,” Clarke said.
Chastain, for her part, admired the casual gender-agnosticism of Boal’s script and sought to emphasize that in her performance. “Maya isn’t defined by a relationship to a man or is a victim of a man or protected by a man or mentored by a man. There’s no boyfriend who rubs her back when she comes home from work,” the actress said. “I don’t think (people) have experienced that in a movie.”
But there’s a fundamental question many viewers will ask: Is Maya, who has a decidedly Hollywood-friendly arc, real?
“No Easy Day” by the pseudonymous SEAL Mark Owen refers to Jen, a character Chastain says she believes is Maya. Chastain said she didn’t meet with Maya but, perhaps leery of questions about the film’s access to intelligence sources, paused awkwardly then declined to answer when asked if she had ever corresponded with her. (Both Chastain and Boal cite a strong desire not to expose the agent, who is still an active member of the CIA.)
Asked how true to life the Maya details are, Boal said: “I don’t know if I can put a percent on it. She’s a character in a film. But she’s also based on reporting and firsthand accounts.” Overall, he said, he tightened and tweaked to tell a decade-long story in less than three hours but hewed as closely as possible to what happened.
Of course, the idea of a cinematic drama with truth-telling ambitions raises some issues — most important, that the form clouds the journalism. “It’s a movie that’s not a documentary,” said the reporter and author Peter Maass, who has covered wars for the New Yorker and others and has seen this film. “So there’s no way to know whether the areas that are new are also the areas that have been fictionalized.”
When Steven Spielberg released “Saving Private Ryan,” critics hailed the film as unprecedented in how it showed the brutality of battle. More than a half-century of war movies had never re-created conflict on such a grand or convincing scale.
With “The Hurt Locker” and now with “Zero Dark,” Bigelow has taken war cinema in the opposite direction. She wants to show the treacherous topography of battle on a small, personal scale: the tense moments of uncertainty, the painful jolts of entrapment.
The sweep and schmaltz of many Hollywood war pictures are gone; instead Bigelow’s films channel the spirit of nuanced war movies such as “Bridge on the River Kwai” and combine it with a first-person 21st century technique.
There is also a less discussed side of battle on display.
“Bigelow’s movies are about the atrocity and horror, but there’s another theme that comes through: the absolute physically addictive pleasure that war can bring to the people fighting it,” said Robert Burgoyne, a war films expert and chair in film studies at Scotland’s University of St. Andrews. “It’s more honest.”
And though Bigelow is not the only recent filmmaker to attempt it — Paul Greengrass in “Green Zone” and Brian De Palma in “Redacted” have similar ambitions — few have done this level of research or gone for such an exacting degree of verisimilitude.
Burgyone also notes that a previous generation of war films — particularly the class of 1980s movies from the likes of Oliver Stone and Stanley Kubrick — took an implicit position that’s lacking here.
“The general frame through most of our major Vietnam war films is blatantly antiwar,” he said. “Bigelow’s films give you a sense of the war experience without an obvious pro- or anti- sentiment in the background.”
If there’s a lesson at all, it’s about the complex mechanics (and, in some cases, blind luck) required to successfully target a terrorist. Yet despite a lack of explicit politics, “Zero Dark” may still carry its own message — just a more ambiguous one.
“At the end Maya gets on a plane after the raid and is asked, ’Where do you want to go?’ And she realizes she has no idea,” Chastain said. “This is about more than Maya. It’s about where we want to go as a country now that Bin Laden has been killed.”