Director Kathryn Bigelow and screenwriter Mark Boal, the Oscar-winning team behind 'The Hurt Locker,' are receiving help and script advice from the White House and the Pentagon to make their upcoming movie about the decade-long effort to kill Osama bin Laden, which ended with the successful Navy SEAL raid in May that brought down the al-Qaeda leader.
But the filmmakers are denying the suggestion, raised by the chairman of the House of Representatives' Homeland Security Committee, that the Obama administration is leaking classified secrets to the production. Bigelow and Boal also insist, despite the film's scheduled October 2012 release date, that 'Kill Bin Laden' (as the movie is tentatively titled) is not meant serve as a partisan campaign ad for the re-election of the president who approved the historic raid.
Rep. Peter King (R-N.Y.), the committee chairman, called on Aug. 10 for an investigation into the assistance that Bigelow and Boal are receiving from the administration, the CIA, and the Defense Department on their script. The White House responded by calling King's suggestion that the filmmakers might be privy to classified secrets "ridiculous." Now, Bigelow and Boal have responded with their own statement, saying that their movie will be non-partisan and will focus on the bravery of those who pursued bin Laden during both Democratic and Republican administrations.
The controversy started with Steven Zeitchik's July 29 column in the Los Angeles Times wondering whether 'Kill Bin Laden,' which Sony plans to release on Oct. 12, 2012, could have an impact on the presidential election less than a month later. (He noted that 'Fahrenheit 9/11, while a huge box office smash, did not sway voters against George W. Bush, who was re-elected shortly after the film's 2004 release. But 'Kill Bin Laden' would likely be a film presenting the incumbent Barack Obama in a favorable light, not a critical one.)
A week later, in her opinion column in the New York Times, Maureen Dowd echoed Zeitchik's point about timing, writing, "The White House is also counting on the Kathryn Bigelow and Mark Boal big-screen version of the killing of Bin Laden to counter Obama's growing reputation as ineffectual." She also wrote that "The moviemakers are getting top-level access to the most classified mission in history" and that Boal "got welcomed to the upper echelons of the White House and the Pentagon and showed up recently -- to the surprise of some military officers - at a CIA ceremony celebrating the hero SEALs."
King's (pictured, right) letter calling for an investigation by the Department of Defense and the CIA (which can be read in its entirety at Deadline.com) seemed a response to that "top-level access" claim in Dowd's column. As he explained to the Los Angeles Times, "I'm very concerned that any sensitive information could be disclosed in a movie. The procedures and operations that we used in this raid are very likely what we'll use in other raids. There's no way a director would know what could be tipping off the enemy." He also suggested that some at the CIA wouldn't have been so quick to help the filmmakers if they'd known that the movie would be released so close to the election. "The fact that the movie is going to be released three weeks before election day, the people at the CIA told me they had no idea that this was the plan," he said. "They were never told it was gonna come out so close to election day."
White House spokesman Jay Carney dismissed King's complaints at a press briefing on August 10. "We do not discuss classified information," he said, according to Reuters. "And I would hope that as we face the continued threat from terrorism, the House Committee on Homeland Security would have more important topics to discuss than a movie." Carney added that the White House had provided the filmmakers with information on the president's role in the raid, but no more than it had provided reporters already.
King's response to Carney: "Obviously, I hit a sensitive nerve," he told Politico. "What he said was nonsense - there has been so much classified information released over the last 90 days."
The Defense Department is offering the filmmakers routine help with the script, a Pentagon spokesman told Reuters. The military is "providing assistance with script research, which is something we commonly do for established filmmakers." Marine Corps Colonel Dave Lapan told the wire service. However, he added, "We do not discuss classified information."
More formal assistance - the use of troops and equipment during the film shoot - could be forthcoming, but only after the military reads and approves the completed script. That's standard operating procedure for Hollywood movies about the military.
Bigelow and Boal did not get full military approval for 'The Hurt Locker' due to a couple of scenes that the Pentagon found objectionable. Nonetheless, their story of an Iraq War bomb squad won praise from critics for its non-partisan, apolitical depiction of soldiers doing their duty. The film earned several Oscars, including Best Picture, Best Director (for Bigelow), and Best Original Screenplay (for Boal).
In their joint statement, Bigelow and Boal did not address whether they had been leaked any classified information, but they denied that the film would have any partisan political message. Their statement read:
The Hollywood Reporter notes that another film about the SEALs, 'Act of Valor,' was made with the full cooperation of the military and will be released in February. No word on whether Rep. King wants to have that film investigated.
Our upcoming film project about the decade long pursuit of bin Laden has been in the works for many years and integrates the collective efforts of three administrations, including those of Presidents Clinton, Bush, and Obama, as well as the cooperative strategies and implementation by the Department of Defense and the Central Intelligence Agency. Indeed, the dangerous work of finding the world's most wanted man was carried out by individuals in the military and intelligence communities who put their lives at risk for the greater good without regard for political affiliation. This was an American triumph, both heroic and non-partisan, and there is no basis to suggest that our film will represent this enormous victory otherwise.
Follow Gary Susman on Twitter @garysusman.