On one end of the Sony Pictures Entertainment lot here is a three-story rainbow: a new work of public art that seems to sprout from the Thalberg executive building and convey the magic of the made-up world of the movies.
Across the lot is art of another kind: a towering black billboard announcing the bleak arrival of “Zero Dark Thirty,” a movie about the hunt for Osama bin Laden that is replete with jarringly gruesome scenes of torture as Central Intelligence Agency officers seek information.
To join the grit of history with the glow of narrative film was the task Kathryn Bigelow and Mark Boal set out to accomplish with “Zero Dark Thirty.” It is among Hollywood’s most challenging films since “The Hurt Locker,” the brutal Iraq war drama that Ms. Bigelow directed and Mr. Boal wrote and that won the best-picture Oscar from “Avatar” in 2010. (The film also won Oscars for directing and writing.)
The new movie is not for the faint of heart or for those expecting typical Hollywood fare. Whether “Zero Dark Thirty” succeeds may depend on the willingness of audience members (and awards voters) to relive difficult events in a drama that Ms. Bigelow and Mr. Boal insist should honor the facts and protect sources, even if that means giving less attention to cinematic conventions like a love interest, comic twists (à la “Argo”) or characters’ back stories.
“I don’t want to play fast and loose with history,” said Mr. Boal, a professional journalist who wrote the film, and, with Ms. Bigelow and Megan Ellison, produced it.
Ms. Bigelow, who directed “Zero Dark Thirty” and joined Mr. Boal in a Friday morning telephone interview, said, “My sole focus was to try and bring what Mark reported to the screen as faithfully as I could.”
“Zero Dark Thirty” is being thrown into the Oscar race alongside other late entries, like “Les Misérables,” “Life of Pi,” “The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey” and “Django Unchained.” Sony expects to qualify “Zero Dark Thirty” for Oscar consideration with a limited theatrical run in late December, and a flurry of promotional screenings for Hollywood guilds, starting on Sunday. The film is to open more broadly on Jan. 11.
Almost 2 hours and 30 minutes long, “Zero Dark Thirty” — the title is a military term for 30 minutes past midnight, but is also meant to evoke the gloominess of the past decade — opens with a prolonged blackout filled with pleading voices from a collapsing World Trade Center. From there, the film, shot in locations including India and Jordan, moves through the intricacies of waterboarding and other severe forms of enhanced interrogation and humiliation of detainees, to the early moments of May 2, 2011, when Bin Laden was killed by Navy SEALs at a home in Pakistan.
A few words of text in the film’s opening moments says that it is “based on firsthand accounts of actual events.”
Despite their attention to the facts, Ms. Bigelow and Mr. Boal both pointed out that “Zero Dark Thirty” remained a thriller and not a kind of documentary intended to stand up to nit-picking by historians. For instance, their film is rooted — more by cinematic choice than by historical necessity — in the experience of a young American intelligence operative, Maya, who is portrayed by Jessica Chastain.
Maya, the filmmakers said, is real. She is based on a young woman who was deployed in the war on terror, with details changed or eroded to protect her identity, and is just one of the film’s many points of contact with a set of facts that is only now becoming known as working journalists continue to produce books and articles about the Bin Laden pursuit.
Mr. Boal said that he and Ms. Bigelow had planned to make a more conventional action film, based on the military pursuit of Bin Laden in the mountains of Pakistan and Afghanistan. But real events overtook them, as the SEALs found their target in Abbottabad, Pakistan.
Rather than dropping the story altogether, they shifted to the more difficult challenge of writing and filming a drama nearly in real time, with firsthand reporting and interviews with government sources that at one point set off objections from lawmakers, who feared that the film would draw on classified information or become a campaign tool for President Obama. In reality, Mr. Obama barely appears in the movie; the only direct image is a brief news clip early in the drama.
But Mr. Boal found himself deep in source interviews that were intended principally to give him the details that humanize a film, but normally do not surface until years after a largely clandestine event. “The information out there was not of the depth and texture you need to make a movie,” Mr. Boal said.
Asked where the film might reveal details not yet widely known, Mr. Boal pointed to a scene portraying the capture of Abu Faraj al-Libbi, a Qaeda leader, by Pakistan’s intelligence forces in 2005. The film’s depiction of Mr. Faraj being cornered by male operatives disguised in burqas, he said, closely adheres to his reporting.
(But, he adds, “I don’t know if all the burqas were black,” and the scene was set in a park, rather than at a cemetery, where it really occurred, because of difficulties in getting permission to shoot in a graveyard.)
Perhaps more startling than Mr. Obama’s absence — nothing here about a “gutsy call” — is the decision to focus on a young woman who is portrayed as persisting for years in the pursuit when higher-ranking, more powerful and better-armed men around her were failing, lazy or clueless.
“For her, for our character, that’s how it felt,” Ms. Bigelow said. “She felt like she was battling all sides.”
Mr. Boal added that the story could have been told with as much validity through others who had participated.
“When you decide to tell the story through a specific person’s eyes, it defines what you see,” Mr. Boal said. As he and Ms. Bigelow prepare to meet Hollywood’s awards voters in the inevitable crash round of appearances — Oscar nomination voting begins on Dec. 17, and few here have seen the film — they are recovering from the rigors of a compressed filmmaking process that began this year and ended only five days ago, when she finished final touches.
Along the way, they were reported to have been harassed by rioters on a set in India, where protesters objected to their having dressed a largely Hindu district with Muslim-related signage. But the disturbance, the filmmakers said, was smaller than reported and quickly ended, a riot made for television news cameras and little more. Since then, they said, there have been no security threats of note.