Actress Jessica Chastain. File photo: Dan Steinberg/Invision/AP

Jessica Chastain, tipped for an Oscar for her role in the Osama bin Laden manhunt movie Zero Dark Thirty, says it should serve as a tribute to the CIA agent who was key to finding the al-Qaeda chief.

The movie by Academy Award-winning director Kathryn Bigelow tells the story of the decade-long search after September 11, 2001, climaxing in last year’s deadly raid on Bin Laden’s hideout in Abbottabad, Pakistan.

The CIA agent known as Maya, played with intensity by Chastain, is seen driving her bosses relentlessly to focus on leads which identify a courier who totes messages to and from the Abbottabad compound.

“I’m playing a real woman… I really admire Maya and don’t want to feel I betrayed her,” said the star, using her character’s pseudonym.

“She can’t take credit for what she accomplished because she’s undercover. So making this movie is like giving her credit for what she’s done,” she said.

Bigelow, whose 2008 film The Hurt Locker won six Oscars, had already begun work on the Bin Laden film when US commandos stormed the al-Qaeda leader’s compound and killed him on May 1 last year.

The project had focused mainly on the decade-long hunt, and the agent at the centre of it, but the movie was transformed by events into the tale of one of the biggest US military successes since 9/11.

Controversy surrounded it even before its release: claims that the makers were given access to classified information fuelled criticism that it would serve as propaganda for President Barack Obama’s re-election bid.

The film – named after military-speak for the time of the nocturnal raid – also shows the use of torture and harsh techniques to force captives to speak.

But the film avoids almost all politicising to focus unflinchingly on the hunt for Bin Laden.

The movie climaxes inevitably with Bin Laden’s death, a hugely cathartic moment for America that triggered celebrations across the country and further afield.

But the emotion is restrained in Bigelow’s film, with a single “whoop” from one of the returning Seals as they unload his bodybag from the helicopter.

The final scene is of Maya, climbing aboard a military plane as the only passenger and being asked where she wants to go, having just accomplished what she had been striving for since 9/11.

“When, at the end, she’s asked ‘Where do you wanna go?’ she has nowhere to go. And the question is not only ‘who is she?’ but also ‘who are we, as a country and as a people?’

“In the end, it’s: ‘where do we go now?’” – Sapa-AFP