Meanwhile, the clock was ticking. In the works were a number of books about the hunt as well as other filmic efforts, including this fall's "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 "Zero Dark" 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 working 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 the 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, for instance, 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," said Greig Fraser, the film's cinematographer. "Especially when you're in a desert and Black Hawk helicopters are kicking sand into the cameras."
Rather than build Bin Laden's compound in pieces on a sound stage, Bigelow also 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 editing 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 house's 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 find authentic depictions of 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, beware) 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 also has its downside: it sufficiently alarmed the Jordanian government that for a brief period they appeared to shut down the crew's Internet access.)
Bigelow even even insisted on the plant life being true to the compound’s leafy surroundings in the Pakistani suburbs—requiring water tankers to roll in every day to irrigate the desert.
In front of the camera, things were also getting intense. As a grizzled interrogator, Clarke was called upon to simulate waterboarding and half-naked beatings. Because the scenes demanded a brutal authenticity, the actor and his on-screen victims soon developed a set of safe words. "It you heard the other guy saying your name, you stopped right away," Clarke said.
For her part, Chastain 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 [war] 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 all 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 still 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 inherently 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 its portrayal of the brutality of battle. More than a half-century of war movies, many said, had never re-created conflict in such a grand or convincing way.