Credit: AP Photo/Chris Carlson

In this image from ‘Zero Dark Thirty’, Navy SEALs fight through a dust storm in the quest for bin Laden.
(Photo: Jonathan Olley)[/caption]

It’s already the year’s most controversial movie, though almost no one knows anything about it.

Zero Dark Thirty, a chronicle of the decade-long hunt for al-Qaeda terrorist leader Osama bin Laden after the 9/11 attacks, began generating partisan critiques before even a frame of film was shot. Now director Kathryn Bigelow and screenwriter Mark Boal are finally opening up — though they remain extremely guarded — in their first interviews about the project.

Entertainment Weekly has the exclusive preview of the film’s teaser trailer, as well as five images from the movie, out Dec. 19. Check them out below:

Zero Dark Thirty will be an unusual film in that the climax of the story is already widely known and it’s the set-up that remains mysterious. Bin Laden was killed on May 2, 2011 by the U.S. Navy’s elite SEAL Team Six, but what remains largely unknown is the true backstory behind the raid, and how intelligence agencies and the military connected the dots that eventually brought them to that compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan.

“I’m fascinated by people who dedicate themselves to really difficult and dangerous things for the greater good,” Boal said in a phone interview. “I think they’re heroic and I’m intrigued by them. I’m fascinated by the world they inhabit. I personally want to know how they caught bin Laden. All I can do is hope that it interests other people.”

The trailer is highly stylized, emphasizing the secrecy of the story with its use of the kind of bars used to black out information on redacted classified documents. In an email interview, Bigelow explains the significance of the title: “It’s a military term for 30 minutes after midnight, and it refers also to the darkness and secrecy that cloaked the entire decade long mission.”

The teaser also suggests a grittier, more deadly, boots-on-the-ground pursuit of information, rather than a drama about decisions made at the top in Washington.

This has been the primary source of controversy: Opponents of President Barack Obama have been eager for the public to avoid any reminders this election year that the Commander-in-Chief gave that order authorizing the raid that finally took down the terrorist mastermind.

The makers of Zero Dark Thirty insist their film is a study of the unsung heroes who worked tirelessly behind the scenes to take down bin Laden, not a celebration of Obama’s decision. When they made the Iraq War drama The Hurt Locker in 2008, which won them Oscars for Best Director, Best Original Screenplay, and Best Picture, Bigelow and Boal were praised (and sometimes slammed) for leaving politics out of the film. They say they’re doing the same thing this time.

“There’s no political agenda in the film. Full stop. Period,” says Boal, a veteran journalist and war correspondent. “A lot of people are going to be surprised when they see the film. For example, the president is not depicted in the movie. He’s just not in the movie.”

Mark Strong (‘Kick Ass,’ ‘Robin Hood’) stands watch at his CIA command post.
(Photo: Jonathan Olley)[/caption]

Distributor Columbia Pictures was sensitive to the criticism that the film might be viewed as an effort to remind the public about Obama’s decision to authorize the strike, and decided last fall to move the film’s debut from October to December, well after the upcoming election.

Still, the project continues to draw fire. U.S. Rep. Peter King, a New York Republican and chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee, and the right-wing watchdog group Judicial Watch, have questioned whether the administration allowed the filmmakers to receive access to classified documents while researching their story.

Asked about these investigations into their work, Bigelow wrote via email, “Respectfully, no comment.” Similarly, Boal refuses to disclose any information about who may or may not have provided information as he researched his screenplay. “I’m going to protect my sources,” he says. (Asked if he interviewed Obama, Boal utters a somewhat irritated laugh and says, “Next.”)

Boal and Bigelow were planning a movie about the hunt for bin Laden long before he was ever located. The two had a finished script about the 2001 siege in the mountains of Tora Bora along the Afghan border, where bin Laden was believed to be hiding before escaping without a trace, and were just about to begin shooting when the raid came in May 2011.

“The minute we heard the news that Osama bin Laden had been killed, what we had been working on became history,” Bigelow writes. “As interesting a story as that would have been to tell, the news re-directed our entire efforts. It changed the movie idea forever.”

Boal said he tossed out his original script entirely and started from scratch.But a lot of the homework I’d done for the first script and a lot of the contacts I made, carried over,” he added. “The years I had spent talking to military and intelligence operators involved in counterterrorism was helpful in both projects. Some of the sourcing I had developed long, long ago continued to be helpful for this version.”

Of course, talking about that research is something he doesn’t want to do.

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Kyle Chandler (‘Friday Night Lights’) co-stars in ‘Zero Dark Thirty’ as the CIA’s top official in Pakistan, what the filmmakers consider “one of the most dangerous jobs in the world.”
(Photo: Jonathan Olley)[/caption]

A Freedom of Information Act lawsuit by Judicial Watch turned up some information about how Boal went about his work, revealing documents that indicated he had a meeting with White House counterterrorism and national security officials, assorted defense and intelligence public affairs officers (whose jobs are to deal with such inquiries), and may have received a tour of the CIA facility where some of the training for the raid occurred. The documents also said his interview requests had been turned down by Admiral William H. McRaven, then commander of Joint Special Operations Command (a.k.a. JSOC), which coordinated the raid, and Admiral Eric T. Olson, commander of Special Operations Command (SOCOM), who also helped oversee the attack.

Those same documents said Boal may be provided with a commander from the Special Mission Unit who was involved in the planning of the raid, though they don’t confirm the meeting ever took place. Pentagon press secretary George Little later told reporters the idea was suggested, but never happened.

Boal declined to comment on any of this. “I think I’ll refer back to my previous statement,” he said, that being: “I’m going to protect my sources.”

He did acknowledge that he tried to talk to dozens of people who work in counterterrorism. “I wanted to know what it was like to be the person responsible for hunting bin Laden, what that life was like,” Boal says. “The only way to really answer that is to talk to people who do it.”

Real-life brothers Joel (left) and Nash Edgerton play members of SEAL Team Six, flying a stealth blackhawk helicopter on the way to raid bin Laden’s Abbottabad compound.
(Photo: Jonathan Olley)[/caption]

Most of Zero Dark Thirty is based on first-hand research. “The way I approached this is, I’m aware of the fact that sometimes there is really good reporting on national security, and sometimes the reporting lags far behind the actual events,” Boal says. “I didn’t have time to wait for the definitive book.”

Bigelow says the story couldn’t have been told without Boal’s background as a journalist. “There are pieces of this puzzle that you can only discern through in-depth research,” she wrote. “Research on this movie was exhaustive and thorough and unbelievably time consuming, and it was Mark’s investigative skills and experience in reporting in this space that enabled us to navigate the sheer complexity of the pursuit.”

“I was looking for the human component, and I was also looking for the untold story,” Boal adds. “You spend enough time looking at these stories and what’s out there is true but partial, incomplete. I was interested in the human element and I was interested in the element that had yet to be portrayed.”

Asked if Zero Dark Thirty will actually make news about the raid, Boal chuckles at the other end of the phone line, a little wearily. “It’s tough to predict because we’re not coming out for 600,000 news cycles,” he says. “Let’s just wait and see on that. I’m happy to answer that question in December, but it’s really hard to predict right now. I hope the film will portray this story in a way that people find surprising and believable, and moving. And I do think it’s moving, emotionally. It’s not a documentary. It’s a movie.”

And every movie dramatizes its story a little, though Boal declined to say whether his main characters will be identified as actual people, or if they will be fictionalized composites. “[I’m] happy to have this discussion closer to release,” he said.

Given the struggle it took to make, and the secrecy involving the research, what else can they tell us about the content of the film?

SEAL Team Six stalks the perimeter of bin Laden’s compound under cloak of darkness.
(Photo: Jonathan Olle)[/caption]

Much of the arc of the story remains under wraps, but here’s what Bigelow and Boal are revealing now about what the movie will depict.

“There are over 100 speaking roles, featuring teams of operatives, from [Department of Defense], CIA, Navy SEALs, et. al. that intersect with foreign nationals and enemy combatants,” notes Bigelow.

As the photos have shown, the cast includes brothers Joel and Nash Edgerton as members of SEAL Team Six, and Kyle Chandler and Mark Strong as CIA agents. Other intelligence agents will be played by The Help Oscar nominee Jessica Chastain (see a photo of her in EW’s magazine edition, on stands and in tablets this week), Brotherhood’s Jason Clarke, Lost‘s Harold Perrineau, Edgar Ramirez (who played the eponymous terrorist in the epic Carlos), Jennifer Ehle (1995’s mini-series Pride and Prejudice), and The League‘s Mark Duplass.

“It’s an ensemble of covert-ops teams — ground branch [field agents], case officers, spies, analysts, and operators,” says Boal.

He declined to say how far up the government or military chain of command we would see depicted in the movie, and also wouldn’t say how much of bin Laden’s elusive maneuvering would be explored directly.

What we can count on seeing is action. As much as The Hurt Locker was a moving drama about an Iraq War bomb technician grappling with loss and the daily threat of death, it was also praised as a tense and exciting military thriller. Bigelow also directed the action films Point Break, Blue Steel and K-19: The Widowmaker. Asked to describe the genres Zero Dark Thirty may fit, she responded: “I guess you could call it many things. It’s a thriller, it’s a drama, it’s a mystery, it’s historical, it’s one of the great stories of our time. It traces the anatomy of the decade long hunt for the world’s most wanted man.”

Boal suggests that pulse-pounding element is one thing a film can capture in a way that isn’t as easy with a straight piece of journalism. “The story is naturally exciting and intriguing and fascinating. It’s the greatest manhunt in history,” he says. “I was excited to portray it in film because there are some things that film can do that books can’t do, and articles can’t do, And I was interested in the challenge of trying to portray this 10-year — more than 10-year — really complicated hunt involving all sorts of different agencies and different people, and finding a narrative through-line.”

Asked why she thought it was an important story to tell onscreen, Bigelow emphasizes that Zero Dark Thirty aims to be more than just entertainment.

“This is an amazing story about the triumph of will, dedication, and duty,” she wrote. “[It’s] about the real life heroes in the intelligence community who worked behind the scenes day and night on what was perhaps the toughest assignment of their lives. As such, it’s a story that needs to be told respectfully.”

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Zero Dark Thirty
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