Background Check: A Reader's Guide to the Real Stories Behind 'Zero Dark Thirty'

Jason Clarke in ‘Zero Dark Thirty’/Image © 2012 Columbia Pictures
Jason Clarke in ‘Zero Dark Thirty’/Image © 2012 Columbia Pictures

“Zero Dark Thirty” continues to execute its manhunt with chilling accuracy. The target is a whole cabal of the diminutive bronzed bald guys in a mission code named: Oscar sweep. Over the past few days, director Kathryn Bigelow and journalist-turned-screenwriter Mark Boal’s blow-by-blow account of the CIA’s surgical strike on Osama Bin Laden (which opens in theaters next week) has seized a slew of critics' awards, laying the groundwork for what could become a history-making haul at this year’s Academy Awards.

If things continue apace for Bigelow and Boal, each of whom took home Oscars for their work on their previous verite Iraq war drama, “The Hurt Locker,” they could become the first director-and-screenwriter team to claim the Academy’s top honors for  two successive films. In fact, they’ve been so consistent in delivering such singularly compelling and precision-crafted documents of the complex times in which we live, they’ve become Hollywood’s own special forces crew of filmmakers for whom failure is not only not an option, it's not even in the realm of possibility.

So what’s the secret behind their winning strategy? Sure, talent and craftsmanship play important roles, as they do in all Oscar-caliber filmmaking. But there is a take-no-prisoners immediacy coursing through both Boal-Bigelow films that demands our attention with an intensity absent from other ripped-from-the-headlines political thrillers since the genre's 1970s heyday. This revealing New York magazine profile provided some insight into Boal and Bigelow's unique collaborative process and the x-factor that elevates these films into a category all their own. The upshot: Boal and Bigelow are both dogged researchers and united in their dauntless devotion to capturing the messy, tedious, and morally ambiguous reality of those on the front lines of fighting the war on global terrorism.

Boal and Bigelow are as exacting in their approach to assembling the film's storyline as they are nimble in responding to challenges that arise in its execution. And their working relationship mirrors that of their "Zero Dark Thirty" tag-team, in which CIA analyst (Jessica Chastain) oversees the big picture while veteran field operative (Jason Clarke) does the legwork and gathers intel. In this case, Bigelow had the vision for a documentary-like approach to a narrative feature that zealously adhered to the facts that Boal (who still considers himself more journalist than screenwriter) assembled in a script entirely based on original reporting and firsthand interviews with top Pentagon officials, CIA agents and ground forces.

In the years since they undertook this project, many of those directly involved in the events depicted on screen have published their own accounts of the culmination of the War on Terror. These riveting stories offer a deeper dive for anyone interested in the granular details of the planning and execution of the deadly raid on Bin Laden’s compound in May of 2011. So, for the completists among us, we've assembled the following guide to a few of the most riveting and reputable accounts of recent history in the making to act as a literary companion to "Zero Dark Thirty."

No Easy Day: The Firsthand Account of the Mission that Killed Osama Bin Laden by Mark Owen: This bestselling memoir by one of the SEALs who carried out the attack offers an exciting and intimate glimpse into the mindset of an elite forces fighter and the steady stream of chaos and crisis the team overcame in the lead-up to the assault.

Manhunt: The Ten-Year Search for Bin Laden – From 9/11 to Abbottabad by Peter L. Bergen: This exhaustively researched narrative by one of the world’s foremost authorities on Bin Laden and the counter-terrorism movement offers a 360-degree perspective on the national security cat-and-mouse game that endured for over a decade and ultimately ended in Bin Laden’s death.

Fearless: The Undaunted Courage and Ultimate Sacrifice of Navy SEAL Team Six Operator Adam Brown by Eric Blehm: While this posthumous look at the life and death of a revered Navy SEAL operator takes place a year before the Bin Laden assassination, this revealing portrait offers a glimpse at the humanity and grit it takes to perform at a high level and stay sane while under threat of constant danger.

Hunting in the Shadows: The Pursuit of al Qa’ida since 9/11 by Seth G. Jones: A Johns Hopkins professor and defense policy adviser at the U.S. Special Operations Command, Jones has the credentials to deliver the inside dope on how the war on terrorism is being executed at the highest levels while also offering an academic’s objectivity on its enduring impact, lessons and meaning.