DAVID GREENE, HOST:
The title of a new movie evokes the darkness of night - half past midnight, to be exact, and the secrecy shrouding a high stakes intelligence mission, the hunt for Osama bin Laden. "Zero Dark Thirty" traces that mission to its conclusion with the Navy SEALS raid in Abbottabad, Pakistan.
RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:
That story is told from the perspective of a small team of CIA agents, mostly working out of a dreary office in Pakistan under intense pressure to find the allusive al-Qaida leader.
(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "ZERO DARK THIRTY")
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (as character) I want to make something absolutely clear. If you thought there was some working group coming to the rescue, I want you to know that you're wrong. (Unintelligible) there is just us and we are failing.
MONTAGNE: "Zero Dark Thirty" is directed by Kathryn Bigelow and written by journalist Mark Boal, the team behind the Oscar-winning Iraq war drama "The Hurt Locker." "Zero Dark Thirty" plays like a thriller involving a mysterious courier who could lead to bin Laden. It's based on extensive real world reporting and its first moments are real - 911 audio recordings of people trapped in the World Trade Center.
MARK BOAL: For us, the story begins with 9/11, so the question arose of how do you remind the audience of 9/11 without being gratuitous and without showing the imagery that I think has been played out to the point of becoming something other than it was. And the audio tracks, to us, seemed like an appropriate way of re-creating that moment, and then allowing us to begin our story of the intelligence hunt.
KATHRYN BIGELOW: I think it emotionally grounds the film and it gives you a context immediately.
MONTAGNE: At the heart of the movie, the main character in "Zero Dark Thirty" is a young woman, CIA agent. She's called Maya, based, I gather, on a real person. What was the moment that you realized that a young woman was going to be at the center of this hunt and kill?
BIGELOW: I think Mark was probably about a month to two months into his reporting, and he realized that there was one woman in particular that really captivated his, you know, his interest. And so we began to talk about it, and you know, obviously as the material developed and he was writing it into a screenplay, realizing that she was probably the best conduit through whom we could tell this story.
MONTAGNE: Were you able to talk to her?
BOAL: I will say that the movie is largely based on firsthand accounts of people that were involved, but having said that, I don't think we're going to ever really get into the weeds of who we spoke to or who we didn't speak to.
MONTAGNE: Let's listen to a scene from the movie where Maya, played by Jessica Chastain, is briefing the Navy SEAL team about her theory on the whereabouts of Osama bin Laden, who's also referred to here as UBL.
(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "ZERO DARK THIRTY")
JESSICA CHASTAIN: (As Maya) There are two narratives about the location of Osama bin Laden. The one that you're most familiar with is that UBL is hiding in a cave in the tribal areas, that he's surrounded by a large contingent of loyal fighters. But that narrative is pre-9/11 understanding of UBL. The second narrative, that he's living in a city, living in a city with multiple points of egress and entry, access to communications, so that he can keep in touch with the organization.
(As Maya) You can't run a global network of interconnected cells from a cave.
MONTAGNE: That is the driving drama of this film, this one person's vision that she won't let go of.
BIGELOW: She really is extremely persuasive and she drives this theory certainly up the food chain to a point where a credible response seems to be necessitated as a result of her persuasiveness. You know, there were many leads floating around. There'd be money on the table if you came in and you gave information about the location of, in this case, UBL.
There was also bin Laden's' family, tracking his family. So those were the two that were extremely popular at the time. And the idea that the courier would lead you to him was perhaps slightly less popular, but as she explains in the movie, there is only two people of whom information was withheld by the people that they asked. And that was the courier and Osama bin Laden himself.
And so she ascribed great significance to that absence of information.
MONTAGNE: The movie depicts interrogations at a secret CIA site. Everybody understands that those existed. There's been talk now for years about torture. In one instance you show rather an elaborate interrogation, very early on in the movie. It's stomach turning.
BOAL: Well, hopefully is should be. I mean this stuff didn't occur over tea and cookies at the Regency. There were some really brutal things done in the name of national security over the last 10 years.
MONTAGNE: Water boarding.
BOAL: Yeah, I mean...
MONTAGNE: Sleep deprivation, being put into a box...
BOAL: Yeah, we didn't show - you know, they also packed people in ice and froze them to death, but we didn't show that.
BIGELOW: One of our objectives was not to sanitize the past but also to show that no single piece of information led to Osama bin Laden's compound.
MONTAGNE: The last section of the film is the raid itself on the bin Laden compound. It unfolds in what seems to be like real time. And there's a tension and anxiety that is just amazing considering we all know how it ends. What were the key things that made that work?
BIGELOW: It was interesting. I had a retired Navy SEAL who I worked with on the choreography of that assault and he said in his opinion the way they've been trained is to move like water and to move with a kind of - obviously a tremendous confidence, a tremendous assurance, but very methodically. And I think that really contributed to how the whole last act unfolds.
And you know, believe me, a pitch-black set with a hundred-member crew and 22 Seals is an interesting experience in and of itself.
MONTAGNE: You built the compound.
BIGELOW: We built it ground-up, three stories. Replicated even the tile on the floor, the bed frame, the rugs, the furniture in the rooms. All the passages were narrow and cluttered, but they were as they should be.
MONTAGNE: Yes. It was a little claustrophobic.
MONTAGNE: That was very nerve-wracking and suspenseful.
MONTAGNE: Your last movie, "The Hurt Locker," was about soldiers in Iraq who disabled bombs - day in, day out. It's their job. And in "Zero Dark Thirty" there was this grind of intelligence work. Maya walks in and she's got a dusty desk. It's piled high with files and taped interviews and interrogations. She's sort of trapped in an office in a way. Was that important for you to convey, to make sure people got that?
BIGELOW: Well, I think it was important to humanize the hunt. I mean there's a character in the movie, Jennifer Ehle, who says over a toast, you know, to big breaks and the little people who make them happen. You know, these are people who have sacrificed a great deal, live in arduous conditions, risk their life in some cases for our safety. So I think it's an interesting portrait of dedication.
MONTAGNE: Kathryn Bigelow is the director and Mark Boal the writer of the new movie "Zero Dark Thirty."