"Who's she?" a senior officer asks a roomful of military men in the new film Zero Dark Thirty. The men look up from a scale model of Osama bin Laden's Abbottabad compound and stare at the redheaded woman standing by the wall. Jessica Chastain, playing a CIA agent named Maya, says flatly, "I'm the motherfucker that found this place."
The motherfuckers who found "Maya" are director Kathryn Bigelow and screenwriter-journalist Mark Boal, the team behind 2009 Best Picture winner The Hurt Locker. Zero Dark Thirty, which opens nationwide January 11th, is a white-knuckle look at the decade-long hunt for bin Laden, which virtually ignores party politics. There's no Cheney, Bush or Rumsfeld, but it depicts the waterboarding and torture and sexual humiliation of terrorism suspects in excruciating detail. There's virtually no bin Laden, but it painstakingly re-creates the historic night-vision raid on his Abbottabad compound. Surprisingly, it stresses the little-reported role of the tenacious young female CIA agent who tracked down the world's most wanted terrorist.
But less than two years ago, Bigelow was preparing to make a different film – about "the failed hunt for bin Laden." That movie, which Bigelow and Boal are still hoping to shoot, would have focused on the two weeks that Delta Force members spent searching for bin Laden in the mountains and caves of Tora Bora, Afghanistan. As her crew scouted locations on May 1st, 2011, President Obama announced that bin Laden had been killed in a dramatic nighttime raid involving SEALs and a downed supersecret stealth copter. Suddenly, that was the story.
Boal – an RS contributor – went back to his sources in the intelligence community and started from scratch. "After a few months, I heard through the grapevine that women played a big role in the CIA in general and in this team," he says. "I heard that a woman was there on the night of the raid as one of the CIA's liaison officers on the ground – and that was the start of it."
Boal turned up stories about a young case agent, recruited straight out of college, who had spent her entire professional career chasing bin Laden. "I was completely surprised to find that there were women that were pivotal to this hunt," says Bigelow. Maya's tough-minded, monomaniacal persona, Boal says, is "based on a real person, but she also represents the work of a lot of other women."
The duo took a risk by crafting their story before the historians had finished theirs, but Boal says he's been relieved to find his account corroborated in recent reports, including the bestselling SEAL Team Six memoir, No Easy Day – which describes a cocky CIA agent nicknamed "Miss 100 Percent" for her conviction that bin Laden would be in that compound.
As in The Hurt Locker, there's no preachy, big-picture dialogue about the War on Terror. "When you're downrange," Boal says, "you're not talking about the geopolitics of getting shot at – you're just not." Still, the film was controversial before it even existed. New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd wrote an editorial claiming that the film "will no doubt reflect the president's cool, gutsy decision against shaky odds." Conservatives exploded, accusing the film of being pro-Obama election-year propaganda, and New York congressman Peter King called for an investigation.
Bigelow says it was "distracting" to see reports while filming thousands of miles away, "and before Mark had even finished his script." Adds Boal, "Look, it was an election year. We said the film didn't have a partisan agenda. Now we have a film, and it can speak for itself." Obama appears in a news clip only, declaring that "America doesn't torture" – and his delay in authorizing the strike actually infuriates Maya's character. Fox News, which stoked the talking-head tumult, is already crowing that if you thought Zero Dark "was going to be one big Obama lovefest, think again."
We all know how it ends. But it's one thing to read about the raid and quite another to see it re-created in what Bigelow calls "the most extraordinary production experience I've ever had – almost zero-light conditions, 150 crew members, 22 cast members, and then you bring in the helicopters." Bin Laden, unarmed, is killed as soon as he appears. He doesn't get a speaking part. "Can you imagine if you're one of those guys?" Bigelow asks. "You've studied the compound. The helicopter crashes. You survive and jump on the ground. You look up – and it's the place. I just think that's a moment where you're thinking, 'History's going to change tonight.'"
This story is from the January 17th, 2013 issue of Rolling Stone.