NEW YORK - On the morning of Sept. 11, 2001, Kathryn Bigelow was in an editing room, in post-production on K-19: The Widowmaker, her Russian nuclear sub thriller, when word of the attack on the twin towers reached her.
"We just stopped what we were doing and shut down for a few days," she recalls. "I was just trying to process it all."
That same morning, Mark Boal was in his apartment in New York, trying to roust himself from bed. After the planes hit the World Trade Center, he walked downtown, working with rescuers, moving through the debris, the chaos.
A few days later, he started reporting a story for Rolling Stone "about the way Muslim students at American universities were experiencing a racist blacklash."
Zero Dark Thirty, directed by Bigelow, written by Boal, and produced by both, begins with recordings of 911 calls from the twin towers. The screen is black, and the heartbreaking sound collage is a reminder of the horror and fear that more than 2,600 people in lower Manhattan faced that day in the minutes before they died. The coordinated suicide attacks - the two jetliners that hit the skyscrapers, another that crashed into the Pentagon in Washington, and a fourth that failed to reach its target, exploding in a field outside Shanksville, Pa. - resulted in the deaths of nearly 3,000 people. The attacks were carried out by al-Qaeda, the radical Islamist group headed by Osama bin Laden.
For the next 10 years, American intelligence agencies brought their resources to bear on the hunt for bin Laden. Zero Dark Thirty is Bigelow and Boal's fictionalized but doggedly researched and richly detailed account of that global search, culminating with the May 1, 2011, raid on the al-Qaeda mastermind's compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan. Even before its wide release - it opens in Philadelphia on Friday, after debuting on a few screens in New York and Los Angeles to qualify for the Academy Awards - Bigelow and Boal's film has triggered debate, denials, and controversy.
Does the long and graphic "enhanced interrogation" sequence at Zero Dark Thirty's outset, with Ammar al-Baluchi (Reda Kateb), a nephew of one of the 9/11 conspirators, being strung up on ropes, locked in a tiny cabinet, and waterboarded, represent an endorsement of torture? After all, Ammar does, finally, give up vital information.
"People will come away from the film with all sorts of reactions, and that's OK," says Boal, who came to screenwriting with a background in investigative journalism. "We're not trying to settle a debate, and we're certainly not trying to score points on one side of the debate or the other.. . . It remains to be seen, but there seems to be a pretty healthy diversity of reaction."
"And I find - and I noticed this in Hurt Locker, too - that film, because it's such a potent medium, is almost a Rorshach test in that it can have the effect of confirming what people want to see. Take that one [torture] scene. The information that then becomes a key part of the narrative is actually disclosed over a lunch. Ammar is having hummus, figs, cigarettes, and they're sitting and chatting."
Bigelow, who won the best director Oscar for The Hurt Locker in 2009 - Boal won for best original screenplay, and the film won best picture - chimes in. She cites another scene in Zero Dark Thirty, when al-Qaeda operative Hassan Ghul gives up information.
"He's very forthcoming," she says, "and it's just an interview, like we're having right now."
It's a tricky balancing act, what Bigelow and Boal have pulled off. Zero Dark Thirty is based on recent events - events that shook the world at its axis, and that will be hard for many people to revisit. But it is also a product of Hollywood, an espionage thriller, an "entertainment" whose studio, Sony Pictures, hopes to score big at the box office.
"I think that the story was inherently very dramatic," Bigelow says. "That was sort of a given, and against that background was a question of tone and balance, and compression. You know, compressing 10 years into 2 1/2 hours.. . . But we had to remain faithful to the research while also creating those compressions . . . and keeping the audience oriented through it all.
"And I think the key thing Mark came up with in the screenplay was putting the audience at the center of the hunt. The audience shares the perspective of the people conducting this operation. And so, suddenly, you're in the middle of the Peshawar market in Islamabad, trying to find this very small needle in this very large haystack."
At the center of their gripping tale is Maya, a CIA operative played by Jessica Chastain. There were a number of agents involved in the decadelong manhunt for bin Laden that the filmmakers could have focused on. But when they heard about a young intelligence officer, a woman, deeply committed to finding bin Laden, they knew they had their hero - or heroine. An Alpha female, not unlike Bigelow.
"I think you could have legitimately told the story through a number of different peoples' perspectives," Boal says. "But narratively, dramatically, cinematically, this seemed like the pretty clear way to go."