THE story of the real-life CIA agent at the heart of 'Zero Dark Thirty' – director Kathryn Bigelow's new film about the hunt for Osama bin Laden – has emerged this week. But the young and determined agent named 'Maya', who is played by actress Jessica Chastain, has been described by colleagues as combative and difficult.
"Do you know how many CIA officers are jerks?" said another. "If that was a disqualifier, the whole national clandestine service would be gone."
The woman, who remains undercover and is in her 30s, was reportedly passed over for promotion this year, and clashed with colleagues about who should take credit for tracking down the al-Qa'ida leader to the compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan, where he was killed by US Special Forces in May 2011, in the 12.30am raid that gives Bigelow's film its title.
Though hundreds of people were involved in the decade-long search, 'Post' CIA sources acknowledge that Maya's contribution was crucial. Following the raid, she was awarded a CIA medal, and given a cash bonus.
But she riled colleagues by responding to the award with a group email, accusing others in the agency of having obstructed her in her work. Those colleagues were further irked by the amount of attention she has received.
The woman also appears, as 'Jen', in 'No Easy Day', a book about the raid by former Navy SEAL Matt Bissonnette, who took part in the mission.
When Bin Laden was killed, the director was working on a project about the attempts to find him. Screenwriter Mark Boal tore up the script and started again, and the film began shooting in spring this year. It opens in US cinemas this week, delayed to avoid accusations that it would give an electoral boost to Barack Obama, who ordered the raid.
The film has caused controversy nonetheless: Bigelow and Boal met with officials from the White House, the Pentagon and the CIA – including the woman on whom Maya is based. Boal, who is also a journalist, was given a CIA tour of the "vault" where the raid was planned, and the mock-up Bin Laden compound where it was rehearsed.
Last year, the Republican chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee called for an investigation into whether the Obama administration had allowed the film-makers access to classified information, a charge that Boal and Bigelow deny.
'Zero Dark Thirty', which introduces itself as "based on first-hand accounts of actual events," is a new kind of timely fusing of film-making and journalism – what Bigelow calls "an imagistic version of living history".
Beginning with a black screen and a harrowing cacophony of voices from September 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 or public sentiment, but via ferocious CIA officers ( Jessica Chastain, Jason Clarke), modelled on the real if anonymous people – the boots-on-the-ground – who led the hunt.
Many film critics believe 'Zero Dark Thirty' will repeat the Academy Awards feat of 'The Hurt Locker', which won both best picture and best director for Bigelow – the first such win for a female film-maker.
But it has also stirred up considerable controversy, and some claim it's too journalistic – that the film-makers learnt of confidential identities and details in their liaisons with the military. Homeland Security committee chairman Peter King has raised questions over the film.
"People in the military were being pressured to co-operate with Hollywood and Hollywood was given access to areas of personnel it shouldn't have access to," he said.