NEW YORK — Kathryn Bigelow and Mark Boal were knee-deep in preparing a film — their follow-up to their Oscar-winning "The Hurt Locker — that would chronicle the manhunt for Osama bin Laden, his escape in Tora Bora, Afghanistan, and the vanishing trail of the world's most-wanted man.
"Then history changed," said Ms. Bigelow.
After a team of Navy SEALs killed bin Laden in his compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan, on May 2 last year, the director, Ms. Bigelow, and Mr. Boal, a journalist-turned-screenwriter, set about remaking their film. Whereas most films start with a concept or a dramatic arc, Mr. Boal and Ms. Bigelow built "Zero Dark Thirty" one source at a time, piecing together a narrative out of recent history shrouded in secrecy.
The approach — a marriage of Mr. Boal's reporting and Ms. Bigelow's visceral action - has made "Zero Dark Thirty" a lightning rod. Though Sony's Columbia Pictures won't release it until Dec. 19 in New York and Los Angeles with a national release to follow on Jan. 11, it has already been hailed as the best film of the year, spawned a Pentagon investigation and elicited op-eds that say the film exaggerates the efficacy of torture.
"Zero Dark Thirty," which introduces itself as "based on firsthand accounts of actual events," is a new kind of timely fusing of filmmaking and journalism — what Ms. Bigelow calls "an imagistic version of living history."
Beginning with a black screen and a harrowing cacophony of voices from Sept. 11, "Zero Dark Thirty" unfolds like a decade-long revenge drama, depicting the sometimes ugly, sometimes cunning pursuit of bin Laden. The story isn't told through politicians, but via ferocious CIA officers (Jessica Chastain, Jason Clarke), modeled on the real if anonymous people who led the hunt.
"It's a movie about the workforce," said Mr. Boal, who has spent time embedded with troops in Iraq and written articles for Rolling Stone and Playboy.
Many film critics think "Zero Dark Thirty" will repeat the Academy Awards feat of "The Hurt Locker," which won both best picture and best director for Ms. Bigelow — the first such win for a female filmmaker.
But it has also stirred up considerable controversy, including claims that the filmmakers learned of confidential identities and details in their liaisons with the military.
It began when the conservative watchdog group Judicial Watch obtained records from the Defense Department and the CIA that detailed meetings in which Undersecretary of Defense for Intelligence Michael Vickers allegedly provided the identity of the commander of SEAL Team 6 (the unit that killed bin Laden) and of tactical planning on the raid. Homeland Security Committee Chairman Rep. Peter T. King, N.Y. Republican, then raised questions about the making of the film. The Pentagon and CIA have conducted internal investigations into the matter.
"If anything, I'm much more concerned than I was originally," said Mr. King, citing an ongoing investigation with the Defense Department. "People in the military were being pressured to cooperate with Hollywood, and Hollywood was given access to areas of personnel it shouldn't have access to."
The White House, which some thought was eager to glamorize President Obama's role in the raid, has called the claims false. (Mr. Obama's ordering of the raid isn't depicted in the film.) Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta, the former CIA director who's played by James Gandolfini in the film, told the Senate in June that no unauthorized information was provided to the filmmakers.
Lt. Col. James Gregory, a Defense Department spokesman, said the hourlong meeting with Mr. Boal and Ms. Bigelow was part of a "system that has been in place for many, many years" to ensure Hollywood has the necessary background to represent the military accurately.
"The Department of Defense routinely provides information to reputable filmmakers," said Col. Gregory. "In this case, one meeting occurred where we provided some strategic context and explored possibilities of providing some assistance. However, no assistance was ever provided to the filmmakers."
"We got caught up in an election year," said Mr. Boal, who denied receiving classified information and said he has not participated in any subsequent investigations.
The 62-year-old Ms. Bigelow seems to have — in her collaboration with Mr. Boal — found the subjects to match her long-standing interest in violence and visceral storytelling. After films like the action flick "Point Break" and the thriller "Strange Days," Ms. Bigelow is clearly now drawn to dramatizing the lives of those toiling for the U.S. on the front lines of war and terrorism.
"The opportunity to humanize an environment that works in the shadows and humanize a workforce that has a very important job that is sort of opaque to the general public is exciting," said Ms. Bigelow, whose "Hurt Locker" captured the adrenaline rush of a bomb-squad expert in the Iraq War.
In "Zero Dark Thirty" (the title is taken from the military term for 30 minutes after midnight, when the raid took place), obsessive tip gathering, brutal interrogations at "black sites" and high-tech geo-tracking culminate in a re-creation of the raid in Abbottabad, for which a full-scale copy of bin Laden's compound was built in Jordan. Ms. Bigelow, with cinematographer Greig Fraser, outfitted cameras with night-vision goggles to mimic the experience of the SEALs.
Scenes of torture in the film have already provoked controversy. Though Sen. Dianne Feinstein, head of the Senate Intelligence Committee, has said CIA detainees played no part in the intelligence gathering that led to killing bin Laden, a detainee is shown in the film to help lead to identifying bin Laden's courier. When Mr. Obama shuts down the detainee program, CIA officers complain in the film about intelligence drying up. Some have claimed the film is thus pro-torture.
The filmmakers hope the movie is seen as being straightforward and without an agenda - an analytical history that asks the audience "to lean into their own conclusions," said Ms. Bigelow. The intended perspective, she said with relish, is: "On the ground, in the center of that hunt."
"What better place to be?" said Ms. Bigelow. "It's where I wanted to be. I wanted to put the audience right in the middle of it and keep it as subjective and immediate and visceral and primal as I possibly could."
Mr. Clarke, an Australian actor, is gaining acclaim for his physical performance as a CIA officer carrying out the interrogations amid the oft-repeated directive to "protect the homeland."
While various accounts have suggested a handful of particularly key CIA officers — including a female officer — tracked down bin Laden, "Zero Dark Thirty" focuses on one, named Maya in the movie and played by Miss Chastain. Many moviegoers will wonder if that unknown female agent played as large of a role as the film suggests. The actress thinks Maya is "100 percent accurate," though Mr. Boal tempers that, saying, "It's a movie."
"There's a narrative imperative once you start to focus on an individual, that you see everything through that individual's eyes," he said. "It's not untruthful. But there were a lot of people that contributed to this, and there were a lot of other women, for example, that contributed to this who are represented in truncated fashion."
The film doesn't pretend to have all the answers, just some of the facts. It ends not with flag-waving but with a question. The conversation started by "Zero Dark Thirty," it would seem, has only just begun.