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RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

It is one of the most compelling real-life dramas in recent history, retold in documentaries, news stories, books, and now the hunt for Osama bin Laden is coming to the big screen.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "ZERO DARK THIRTY")

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: You really believe this story?

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: Osama bin Laden? Yeah.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: What part convinced you?

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: Her confidence.

MARTIN: Director Kathryn Bigelow and screenwriter Mark Boal are the latest to embark on a Herculean task - summing up the more-than-a-decade-long search for the leader of al-Qaida. Bigelow and Boal were given access to key military and intelligence officials as part of their research for the film "Zero Dark Thirty." It comes out in select theaters this week. And in the course of those conversations their main character took shape. Here's Bigelow talking with ABC News.

KATHRYN BIGELOW: When I realized at the heart of this 10-year odyssey was this woman, who had a kind of tenacity and a dedication and courage, I was excited to take it on.

MARTIN: Her name is Maya, at least in the film. And according to the story Bigelow weaves, this young woman is the one who put the pieces together that would ultimately lead the CIA to that compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan.

Here's a clip from the film.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "ZERO DARK THIRTY")

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #3: Maya, this is Joseph Bradley. I was station chief. Nice to meet you.

JESSICA CHASTAIN: (as Maya) And you, sir.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #4: You don't think she's a little young for the hard stuff?

MARTIN: Other versions of this story have also depicted a female CIA analyst behind the hunt for bin Laden. There was a recent TV movie and a book by a former member of Navy SEAL Team Six. Although in that book her name isn't Maya, it's Jen.

So was there a female CIA analyst at the center of this search? We asked someone who himself has spent many years tracking Osama bin Laden.

PETER BERGEN: My name is Peter Bergen. I've written four books about al-Qaida. The most recent one is "Manhunt," about the hunt for bin Laden.

MARTIN: Bergen's take on the whole female CIA analyst who saves the day narrative?

BERGEN: I think it's a literary device. It's not inaccurate but it's not wholly accurate. In fact, the lead analyst who's identified in my book is John. The guy who was on what they call The Account from 2003 till May 1, 2011, when Bin Laden was killed, and the guy who was always saying, I'm at a 90 percent certainty that Bin Laden is living in this mysterious compound in Abbottabad.

That guy is a guy. I mean, he's not a female. That said, I think the largest cultural shift that's happened at the CIA in the last couple of decades is the role women have played, in either leadership positions in the agency, operation role, and particularly in the analytical role that was very useful in finding Bin Laden.

MARTIN: The bin Laden unit at the CIA was founded in December of 1995. And Bergen says initially it was less than a dozen people - mostly women, and that was the point.

BERGEN: Women don't take cigarette breaks, they don't tell war stories, they're more focused, they get the job done. And at the time, counter-terrorism was regarded as sort of a backwater. So it was a small group and it was a group that was regarded as being somewhat overly interested in Bin Laden, you know, almost maniacally so.

MARTIN: Here's another scene from "Zero Dark Thirty." This is where Maya, the CIA analyst, who is played by Jessica Chastain, is confronting her station chief in Pakistan about a possible lead.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "ZERO DARK THIRTY")

CHASTAIN: (as Maya) But the truth is you don't understand Pakistan and you don't know al-Qaida. Either give me the team I need to follow this lead. Or the other thing you're going to have on your resume is being the first station chief to be called before congressional committee for subverting the efforts to capture or kill bin Laden.

ROBERT GRENIER: My name is Robert Grenier and I was in the Clandestine Service for 27 years. I was the director of Counterterrorism Center from late 2004 to early 2006.

MARTIN: I'm wondering if you were aware of any kind of stress that this created? Was there any kind of emotional toll that it took on these folks to be so preoccupied by this one mission for so long,

GRENIER: Oh surely, there is a great feeling of personal responsibility. That if, God forbid, there's a lead that's missed, if there's some connection that we miss, that the consequences could be disastrous. So yes, there are a great many people who at regular intervals, I'm sure, have woken up in a cold sweat at 3 in the morning wondering did I make a mistake today? Is there something else that I could've done?

MARTIN: Grenier says that same dedication complicated the mission in some ways.

GRENIER: There's always the risk and a very real risk that people who are myopically focused on a single target, and are obsessively pursuing that as they should, are simply not going to have the perspective or, in some cases, the judgment that needs to be brought to bear when the time comes to make the decisions, as to what leads are going to be pursued and which ones are going to be acted upon.

It's something which simply takes over your entire life to an extent that a lot of people probably don't fully understand.

MARTIN: We asked the CIA if there was one woman at the center of this hunt, and they told us it was a classic team effort and that the people involved worked tirelessly for years, never sought attention and have, quote, "earned the right to remain in the shadows."

Peter Bergen told us that it's hard to know how many analysts who were part of those initial teams were there at the end, the day the Navy SEALs raided the compound in Abbottabad.

BERGEN: There were some high-fives and champagne bottles that were open. But yeah, it's not like the death of Bin Laden is the elimination of the al-Qaida threat. I think that yeah, people are still working on trying to find number two.

MARTIN: And if there is a woman like Maya, she may be one of them.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

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