Inside the Bin Laden Movie War: Secrets of the Kathryn Bigelow Shoot

2012-23 REP Kyle Chandler, Edgar Ramirez Katherine Bigelow H

Kyle Chandler, Edgar Ramirez and director Katherine Bigelow on the set of her top-secret bin laden film, which is set for release Dec. 19 from sony.

A starring role for Jessica Chastain and a broad storyline look to head off a possible rival movie from The Weinstein Co.

This story first appeared in the June 29 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.

As the cast of Kathryn Bigelow’s Osama bin Laden movie began arriving home from Jordan this month, many were peppered with questions about the top-secret project. “I can’t talk about that,” castmember Mark Duplass said at a June 13 event when asked which character he plays. “I am contractually signed to be quiet.”

But details are emerging about Bigelow and screenwriter Mark Boal’s untitled follow-up to The Hurt Locker, now in postproduction for a Dec. 19 release by Sony. The storyline can be discerned from interviews with those who have read the script as well as from CIA and Department of Defense documents turned over to the conservative group Judicial Watch, which contends the Obama administration was too cozy with Boal during a series of high-level meetings (Bigelow attended some of those sessions). These sources say the movie paints a broad portrait of the decade-long hunt for bin Laden, detailing the efforts of the intelligence community, national security officials, the Pentagon and three presidents.

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While Bigelow’s film sports a sizable ensemble cast, Jessica Chastain is said to play a central figure, a CIA intelligence officer who was key in determining the identity of Abu Ahmad al-Kuwaiti, bin Laden’s courier. The agent believed for years that the way to find bin Laden was through his network of couriers. It wasn’t until August 2010, however, that the key courier was located by the CIA in Abbottabad, Pakistan.

Informants followed the courier to a two-story compound that, by September 2010, the CIA had determined housed bin Laden. The discovery set off  a chain of events that led to President Obama ordering the Navy SEALs raid that killed the world’s most- wanted terrorist May 2, 2011.

The broad strokes of the bin Laden search have been outlined in numerous news stories and in CNN national security analyst Peter Bergen's new book. That’s why some of the same characters and events in Bigelow’s movie -- like the central female CIA agent -- appear in a rival film, Code Name: Geronimo. The Weinstein Co. bought U.S. rights at the Cannes Film Festival, sparking speculation that Harvey Weinstein would release it before Sony opens Bigelow’s movie.

TWC -- which is Sony's partner on Quentin Tarantino's upcoming film Django Unchained -- won’t say whether it will release Geronimo this year, or at all. But while the scope of the film is very different — it covers the year before bin Laden’s death, compared with a decade -- it could undermine Bigelow’s project.

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One insider says Geronimo has much more SEALs action and was made in the same patriotic vein as Act of Valor, the February movie featuring real SEALs that was backed by the Pentagon. Meanwhile, conservative critics continue to dog the Bigelow project, posing a potential marketing challenge for Sony.

And earlier this month, Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta -- who himself met with Boal -- was asked at a congressional hearing if classified information was turned over. “No unauthorized disclosures were provided to movie producers or anybody else,” he responded, adding that his team would cooperate with a review ordered by Republican Rep. Peter King of New York.

Sony and the filmmakeres continue to dispute that Bigelow's movie is a love letter to President Obama in the midst of his reelection bid. "There is no political agenda, or partisanship," one insider close to the production said.

But Judicial Watch director Tom Fitton tells THR he remains concerned that Boal and Bigelow were given the name of a SEAL commander involved with the raid on bin Laden, vowing to press for the release of additional CIA documents. Says Fitton, “This was atypical access.”

Megan Ellison's Annapura Pictures is financing and producing Bigelow's film.