Kathryn Bigelow‘s follow-up to the Oscar-winning “The Hurt Locker,” “Zero Dark Thirty,” was a topic of debate even before screenwriter Mark Boal started writing it. 

The film tells the inside story of the hunt for Osama bin Laden, and deals with a number of touchy subjects along the way. Chief among them is the no-holds-barred look at torture — or “enhanced interrogation methods” — which has offended some. In fact, some critics have even gone as far as to say the movie is pro-torture, which is a stance Bigelow seeks to clarify.

“They were difficult to shoot, those sequences,” Bigelow explains of the torture scenes early in the film. “I wish it was not part of our history, but it was.”

There is one extended torture scene fairly early on in “Zero Dark Thirty” that features, among other things, Jason Clarke‘s character Dan waterboarding a detainee. Though the film follows the evolving use of torture throughout the war in Iraq and the hunt for bin Laden, it doesn’t seek to glorify it, and Boal thinks that’s an important part of the discussion of this movie.

“I understand that those scenes are graphic and unsparing and unsentimental, but I think what the film does over the course of more than two hours is show the complexity of the debate and the number of different ways that information came into the CIA, including in that particular scene it shows that the torture didn’t stop the attack that the characters were worried about,” Boal explains.

What’s interesting is that the torture sequences never seem to get the characters the information they need, while less offensive means like eating lunch with a detainee or doing surveillance work ended up paying off in higher dividends. That also wasn’t meant as a commentary on the use of torture during the war, but rather just as accurate a retelling of main character “Maya’s” story as Boal could create in a two-hour-long movie.

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Jessica Chastain plays Maya, a character inspired by the real CIA operative who played a major role in finding and killing bin Laden. “Zero Dark Thirty” is told through Maya’s eyes, and the character even leads some torture scenes of her own. Though those weren’t easy for Chastain to act out, she says they helped her connect more with her character.

“In regards to the difficult scenes that these people found themselves in, I just, in playing the character, grew so much compassion for this woman who really sacrificed so much for this mission,” Chastain says. “[Boal] took the dry facts of this manhunt — the greatest manhunt in history — and what he was able to do with the dry facts and create this amazing arc and really put the light on the people who worked so hard that never get the acknowledgment for that, so I have an enormous amount of compassion for everything they dealt with.”

Clarke echoes similar sentiments, saying, “Those things were really difficult to shoot, but what I loved about the character [Dan] … is that the journey of that man is there for all to see. You get to see exactly what happens, and the fact that it is coming back into the debate and everything else means that it’s film showing in a way that you can’t understand in a book or in a sound bite.”

Because the story of “Zero Dark Thirty” is so much about the unknown people behind the hunt for bin Laden, don’t expect to see much of the terrorist in the movie. Bigelow says it was an intentional decision to never outright show bin Laden’s face.

“I think our thinking was this is about the men and women on the ground in the workforce … [who] found this man and ultimately [it’s] not really about him. It’s about them, and they humanize that hunt and humanize that journey,” Bigelow tells Zap2it. “It’s their story.”

At the end of the day, Boal says he hopes that people go into “Zero Dark Thirty” without any preconceived notions created by the drama surrounding the project, and rather watch the movie with open eyes.

“The film was political before I even wrote a word and I think that will unfortunately continue and people will bring what they want to see,” he says. “Our intention was to show the complexity of this debate, which is fairly complicated, and hopefully have people that judge for themselves.”

“Zero Dark Thirty” comes out on Jan. 11.

Posted by:Terri Schwartz