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First Look at Kathryn Bigelow’s Zero Dark Thirty

From EW: 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.

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.”

(thanks Mel!) Check out a few stills after the cut.

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.”

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.

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.”

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.”