"Zero Dark Thirty" highlights rising star of women in CIA

A graduate of Juilliard, Jessica Chastain burst onto the film scene in 2011 with a flurry of features which -- owing to the viscissitudes of release schedules -- hit movie screens all at once: Terrence Malick's "The Tree of Life," Al Pacino's "Wilde Salome," "Take Shelter," "Coriolanus," "The Debt," "Texas Killing Fields," and "The Help," for which she received a Best Supporting Actress Oscar nomination. Chastain told the Hollywood Reporter that, while shooting scenes in which she witnessed torture, she had to go against everything she had learned as an actress. "I'm playing a character that's been trained to be unemotional and analytically precise. My whole life, I've been trained to be emotional," she said. "During those scenes, anything I felt -- it was like wearing a straitjacket."
Sony Pictures

(CBS News) The movie "Zero Dark Thirty" starring Jessica Chastain finished No. 1 at the box office this weekend. The film -- based on the experience of a real person -- shows one example of how women are rising stars in the world of intelligence.

Chastain plays the CIA agent at the center of the decade-long manhunt for the world's most wanted terrorist. Called "Maya" in the film, the person Chastain portrays is a career CIA officer who obsessively chases leads across the globe to bring bin Laden to justice.

Chastain said of the story to Charlie Rose in a recent interview, "It's the greatest manhunt in history and there's a young woman involved."

Chastain told Rose at first she was surprised it was a woman who led the intelligence effort to track down bin Laden and was extremely proud of her persistence. She said, "Her strength, and you know, even when she comes up against brick walls -- whether it be interrogations that don't go the way she wants or colleagues that don't believe in her lead -- she does not take 'no' for an answer."

The movie is credited with highlighting the more prominent role women have played in the intelligence community over the last three decades. According to a U.S. Executive Branch progress report on women in peace and security careers, women make up 13 percent of the "senior intelligence service" and between 21 percent and 29 percent of "key agencies responsible for national security and foreign policy."

Bill Harlow, former CIA spokesman, said, "Right now the head analyst in the CIA is a woman, the senior person in the science and technology director is a woman, the number two in the National Clandestine Service is a woman, and the number-three ranking officer in the agency itself is a woman. So they're rising to new heights throughout the agency leadership."

Valerie Plame Wilson spent nearly 20 years rising through the ranks as a spy at the CIA. Plame has said, "The agency, although it's come a long way, is still very much an old boys' network. There were many meetings where I was the only female sitting at the table."

In 2003, her cover was blown by members of the Bush administration, thrusting her into the spotlight and ending her career.

Plame said, "I hate to generalize, but I do think, in many cases, women do make better operations officers, because of those traits of being able to listen and being more nurturing, perhaps, in some cases where its useful."

For 27 years, Jonna Mendez was also undercover, instructing and managing the CIA's foreign assets all over the world. In 1988, she became chief of disguise at the agency.

Mendez recalled, "When I got there, it was like a bunch of men who were like my father, and thought women really maybe should be at home. The next generation of men closer to my age thought they'd give us a shot, but they certainly never dreamed that we would be running the joint."

Mendez agrees with Plame that female agents bring certain skills that help them excel. She said, "It's something that women are particularly good at, I think, taking a lot of small facts, putting them together, finding the patterns, finding the connections."

She hopes Chastain's portrayal as the hard-headed, hard-charging Maya will motivate more women to join the secret ranks of the Clandestine Service -- and eventually shatter the CIA's glass ceiling. "It is time to have a female CIA director and I think we will see it in my lifetime," Mendez said. "I think the female President of the United States that I'll also see in my lifetime may be the one who appoints the female director of CIA."

For "CBS This Morning" co-host Norah O'Donnell's full report, watch the video in the player above.