NEW YORK – Kathryn Bigelow and Mark Boal were knee-deep in preparing their 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, Bigelow says.
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. 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.
It’s a movie about the workforce, 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 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 believed 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, Gregory says. 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 62-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 workforce 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.