Director Kathryn Bigelow's gripping drama "Zero Dark Thirty" is much more than a nail-biting play-by-play of the top-secret mission to kill Osama bin Laden on May 2, 2011. For all but the final action-packed 20 minutes of the film, it's a fascinating behind-the-scenes look at the military-intelligence specialists whose decade-long hunt for the al Qaeda leader consumed (and in some cases killed) their every thought.
Since not everyone who buys a ticket for the film is an avid reader of "The Atlantic," here are answers to potential burning questions about the movie's depiction of the search for OBL.
Is Jessica Chastain's character based on a real CIA agent?
CIA officers have confirmed that Jessica Chastain's CIA analyst "Maya" is based on an actual bin Laden hunter. The real female analyst joined the CIA before the September 11 attacks, and worked for a time in Pakistan identifying targets for drone attacks. Like Chastain, the agent is now in her 30s. And, like Maya, the wunderkind CIA analyst was single-mindedly devoted to finding bin Laden and was known to be combative in that task.
"She's not Miss Congeniality, but that's not going to find Osama bin Laden," a CIA colleague told the Washington Post. In fact, CIA sources told the Post that after she and several others on the bin Laden team received one of the CIA's highest awards, she hit "reply all" to the email announcing the award to complain that other award recipients had actually hindered her work in locating OBL and did not deserve to share the honor. So, that line in the movie when Maya responds to a CIA head's "who's she?" with "I'm the motherf***er who found this place," may actually be a valid representation of the real agent's personality.
Before their assault, the SEALs prepared an alphabetical list of Native American-themed code words. Each code word represented a different aspect of the mission, and the SEALs radioed in the code words, one by one, as they accomplished each goal of the mission. "Geronimo" really was the code word for locating bin Laden. According to an exhaustive account of the raid published in the New Yorker in August 2011, the SEAL who killed Bin Laden said, after firing his two fatal shots, "For God and country — Geronimo, Geronimo, Geronimo." After a pause, he said, "Geronimo E.K.I.A." (Enemy Killed in Action).
Did torture lead to OBL's location?
Just as President Bush was criticized for permitting waterboarding and other forms of torture, Bigelow has been criticized for depicting the torture as resulting in intelligence that led to bin Laden. However, those critics must not have seen the film yet, because while it does depict torture (particularly a gruesome waterboarding), the torture does not directly lead to bin Laden, and, in fact, the highest al Qaeda suspect they torture refuses to confirm the existence of the courier Chastain's character is obsessed with finding.
Two Democrats on the Senate Intelligence Committee, which voted on Dec. 13 to declassify a 6,000-page report on the government's enhanced interrogation techniques, have publicly stated that the CIA learned of the existence of bin Laden's courier, who led the Americans to the terror mastermind, through means unrelated to the CIA's coercive interrogation techniques. Screenwriter Mark Boal has defended the movie's torture scenes, saying, "It's a movie, not a documentary," and adding, "We had to compress a very complicated debate and a 10-year period into two hours."
The scene in which a suicide bomber kills another CIA al Qaeda specialist, Jessica (Jennifer Ehle), reflects real people and events. Alec Station, the first CIA unit devoted to dismantling al Qaeda and locating bin Laden, was renowned inside the intelligence community for its almost entirely female staff of analysts. One of its standouts was Jennifer Matthews, according to the book, "The Triple Agent." The book describes how Matthews struggled to crack al Qaeda while trying to stay in touch with her three children in the U.S. – such as how, on Christmas Day 2009, Matthews Skyped with her family from Khost, Afghanistan, showing off her guns to her children. Five days later, as the film depicts, Matthews was killed when a Jordanian physician she thought was interested in becoming a spy for the CIA blew himself up at a meeting with her. In the film, the heartbreaking murder of her mentor causes Maya to declare, "I believe I was spared so I could finish the job."
Did the attack on the bin Laden compound nearly fail because of a helicopter crash?
Although the helo crash inside the compound walls leads to one of the film's most intense moments, SEALs and military officials interviewed after the raid said the crash – caused by the military's failure to take into account the hot air blown back up by the compound's walls – didn't faze the highly experienced SEALs, all of whom had been selected for their resourcefulness in battle. As shown in the film, the 12 SEALs in the downed chopper regrouped, kicked down a door to enter the compound and helped find and kill bin Laden. Then they destroyed the helicopter so its technology would stay out of the wrong hands and jumped into the back-up chopper assigned to pick them up. During a briefing with President Obama after the attack, the SEAL team commander thanked the copter pilot for crash-landing the craft without injuring any of his men.