Battle stations: Two new films tell contrasting stories of the plot to assassinate Bin Laden

Tim Walker explores why in election year they have sparked a bitter war of words between right and left in the US.

It was considered one of the key achievements of President Obama's first term as he fought the 2012 election. Now, the hunting and killing of Osama bin Laden is the basis for one of the most fancied movies of the 2013 awards season. The relationship between Washington and Hollywood is closer and more controversial than ever. And Zero Dark Thirty, Kathryn Bigelow's follow-up to her Oscar-winning war film The Hurt Locker, is proving difficult to divide from the political weather system brewing around it.

The movie follows the 10-year trail of intelligence work that led from 9/11 to Bin Laden's death. It was conceived, researched and written mere months after the events depicted at its climax. While the film-makers insist it's not a docu-drama, they do claim it is all based on fact, down to the details of the Pakistani art that graced the walls of the al-Qai'da leader's compound. Bigelow and screenwriter Mark Boal – a journalist from whose war reporting the idea for The Hurt Locker arose – were granted access to sources from within the CIA, the Pentagon, the Navy SEALs and the White House. Among them was the dogged CIA agent who appears in the film as "Maya", played by Jessica Chastain. Boal was reportedly given a tour of the Agency's "vault" where the raid was planned, and of a life-size replica of Bin Laden's hide-out, where it was rehearsed.

As the extent of this co-operation became apparent, Republicans feared a propaganda coup for the Democrat President who'd ordered the 12.30am raid from which the film takes its title. Last year, the Republican chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee demanded an investigation into whether Bigelow and Boal had been privy to classified information. Documents released this summer reveal they never had such access. However, the film-makers were granted a number of meetings with high-level officials, including CIA deputy director Michael Morell, who, according to an email sent by one of his colleagues, "gave them 40 minutes, told them we're here to help with whatever they need, and gushed to Kathryn about how much he loved The Hurt Locker."

Now, though, the controversy is of a different order. The film opens in select US cities this week, and has already picked up several awards for Best Picture from critics' groups, not to mention four Golden Globe nominations. But in among the good reviews are the gory details: Zero Dark Thirty begins with graphic scenes of a detainee being waterboarded and otherwise inhumanly treated. A morsel of information that he provides to his US interrogator is depicted as a potentially significant part of the intelligence picture that led to Bin Laden.

Only last week, Democrats on the Senate Intelligence Committee approved a 6,000-page report, which concludes that torture did not play a crucial role in the search for the world's former most wanted terrorist. So does the film somehow endorse torture, or does it just demonstrate the moral cost of the mission? Does the minuteness of that morsel gleaned from the torturer's victim suggest such tactics were worthwhile, or that they were wrongheaded? Or is Zero Dark Thirty simply, as Bigelow and Boal suggest, journalistically detached? "The film doesn't have an agenda," the director told The New Yorker, "and it doesn't judge."

That's not what the reviewers think. David Edelstein, film critic of New York magazine, has named Zero Dark Thirty his film of the year, yet also claims it "borders on the politically and morally reprehensible." "I'm betting that Dick Cheney will love the new movie Zero Dark Thirty," wrote Frank Bruni, in a column for The New York Times, recalling the ex-vice president who helped to coin the phrase "enhanced interrogation". Boal rejected their suggestions this week, saying, "The movie has been, and probably will continue to be, put in political boxes. Before we even wrote it, it was [branded] an Obama campaign commercial, which was preposterous. And now it's pro-torture, which is preposterous."

Yet there is a genuine debate brewing nonetheless, says Steven Gaydos, executive editor of Variety. "People marched in the streets against George Bush; there was disgust and outrage over those Abu Ghraib photos. Zero Dark Thirty is honest about the usage of these tactics. But it's neutral. And there are people, like John McCain, who will say, 'We can't be neutral about torturing people; it doesn't work, and an artist should take a stance against it.'"

At least the charge that the film is an "Obama campaign commercial" is demonstrably unsubstantiated. Obama himself barely features and, writes Peter Bergen, CNN's national security analyst and one of the few Western journalists to have interviewed Bin Laden, the one time the president does appear "is in a clip from a 60 Minutes interview in which he criticizes the use of 'torture.' By this point in the film, the audience has already seen that the CIA has employed coercive interrogation techniques on an al-Qai'da detainee that produced a key lead in the hunt for bin Laden. In the film, Obama's opposition to torture comes off as wrongheaded and prissy."

Elsewhere in Zero Dark Thirty, the President's caution is implicitly criticised, as he demands confirmation and further intelligence to prove that the Abbottabad compound's occupant is really the al-Qai'da mastermind. It took Obama nine months to order the raid from the moment Bin Laden's location was first identified, much to the frustration of "Maya", who is told by a White House adviser, by way of explanation, "The president is a thoughtful, analytical guy."

Originally slated for a US opening in October, the film was delayed until after the Presidential election, following howls of dismay from Republican Party law-makers, who still presumed it would be a campaign boost for their opponent. Its release has been called off indefinitely in some Middle Eastern countries, such as Lebanon and Qatar, for fear of inflaming local tensions.

Hollywood, it appears, remains convinced of its ability to alter the political landscape. Steven Spielberg's Lincoln, another Oscar contender, was also said to have been postponed so as not to affect the election. Its depiction of the 16th President's fight to pass the 13th Amendment, ending slavery, was compared by some to Obams's more recent battle on behalf of universal healthcare. Lincoln and Zero Dark Thirty are both to be shown to Beltway insiders at specially organised screenings in Washington DC.

Steven Gaydos thinks the talk of politically motivated opening dates should be taken with a pinch of salt. "Do you believe that Hollywood studio moguls value political campaigns or proper release dates more?" he asks. "You spend $150m on a movie and the same on marketing, and you bet it all on opening day. So Steven Spielberg, I would argue, was looking for the best opening day for Lincoln, not the best opening day for Obama."

There is a second film about the same events, that might more reasonably be accused of being calculatedly pro-Obama. Shown on US television immediately before the election, and released in the UK last week, SEAL Team Six: the Raid on Osama bin Laden is a more jingoistic depiction of the Navy SEAL raid of 2 May, 2011. It was backed by producer Harvey Weinstein, and re-cut close to broadcast to include more documentary footage of the President before and after the raid. Weinstein said the additions were merely for the sake of extra realism, but he is on the record as a strong supporter of the President, and personally raised more than $500,000 for Obama's re-election fund.

Seal Team Six probably had even less effect on the election's outcome than Michael Moore's Fahrenheit 9/11, also produced by Weinstein, did in 2004. But it joins the decade-long political conversation that the film and TV industry has been having with itself about the so-called War on Terror. TV miniseries The Path to 9/11, broadcast in 2006, was supposedly based on the 9/11 Commission Report, but was criticised for its inaccuracies. The script by Cyrus Nowrasteh, a friend of the right-wing radio host Rush Limbaugh, insinuated that President Clinton was so distracted by the Monica Lewinsky scandal that he let Bin Laden slip through the Americans' fingers, thus leaving him free to plan and execute the 9/11 attacks.

24, in which superspy Jack Bauer solved every second problem with "enhanced interrogation techniques", was co-created and produced by Joel Surnow, an avowed Republican who is also friends with Limbaugh. The more liberal Homeland also tackles the moral difficulties that arise from the struggle against terrorism, albeit in increasingly preposterous fashion. Zero Dark Thirty has been praised as the most accurate screen depiction yet of the War on Terror. And it might have been a different movie altogether, accused of another political slant: when Bin Laden was killed, Bigelow and Boal had already spent three years developing a script about the Americans' failure to find him. They scrapped the project, and started over.

'Zero Dark Thirty' is released in the UK on 25 January

Arts and Entertainment
Joel Edgerton, John Turturro and Christian Bale in Exodus: Gods and Kings
film Ridley Scott reveals truth behind casting decisions of Exodus
Arts and Entertainment
An unseen image of Kurt Cobain at home featured in the film 'Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck'
filmThe singers widow and former bandmates have approved project
Arts and Entertainment
Jake Quickenden and Edwina Currie are joining the I'm A Celebrity...Get Me Out Of Here! camp
tv
Arts and Entertainment
George Mpanga has been shortlisted for the Critics’ Choice prize
music
Arts and Entertainment
Roisin, James and Sanjay in the boardroom
tvReview: This week's failing project manager had to go
PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Carrie Hope Fletcher
booksFirst video bloggers conquered YouTube. Now they want us to buy their books
Arts and Entertainment
Damien Hirst
artCoalition's anti-culture policy and cuts in local authority spending to blame, says academic
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
A comedy show alumni who has gone on to be a big star, Jon Stewart
tvRival television sketch shows vie for influential alumni
Arts and Entertainment
Jason goes on a special mission for the queen
tvReview: Everyone loves a CGI Cyclops and the BBC's Saturday night charmer is getting epic
Arts and Entertainment
Image has been released by the BBC
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Will there ever be a Friends reunion?
TV
News
Harry Hill plays the Professor in the show and hopes it will help boost interest in science among young people
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
A Van Gogh sold at Sotheby’s earlier this month
art
Arts and Entertainment

MusicThe band accidentally called Londoners the C-word

Arts and Entertainment
It would 'mean a great deal' to Angelina Jolie if she won the best director Oscar for Unbroken

Film 'I've never been comfortable on-screen', she says

Arts and Entertainment
Winnie the Pooh has been branded 'inappropriate' in Poland
books
Arts and Entertainment
Lee Evans is quitting comedy to spend more time with his wife and daughter

comedy
Arts and Entertainment
American singer, acclaimed actor of stage and screen, political activist and civil rights campaigner Paul Robeson (1898 - 1976), rehearses in relaxed mood at the piano.
filmSinger, actor, activist, athlete: Paul Robeson was a cultural giant. But prejudice and intolerance drove him to a miserable death. Now his story is to be told in film...
Arts and Entertainment
Taylor Swift is dominating album and singles charts worldwide

music
Arts and Entertainment
Kieron Richardson plays gay character Ste Hay in Channel 4 soap Hollyoaks

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Midge Ure and Sir Bob Geldof outside the Notting Hill recording studios for Band Aid 30

music
Arts and Entertainment
Look out: Broad shoulders take Idris Elba’s DCI John Luther a long way
tvIdris Elba will appear in two special episodes for the BBC next year
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Cameron, Miliband and Clegg join forces for Homeless Veterans campaign

    Cameron, Miliband and Clegg join forces for Homeless Veterans campaign

    It's in all our interests to look after servicemen and women who fall on hard times, say party leaders
    Millionaire Sol Campbell wades into wealthy backlash against Labour's mansion tax

    Sol Campbell cries foul at Labour's mansion tax

    The former England defender joins Myleene Klass, Griff Rhys Jones and Melvyn Bragg in criticising proposals
    Nicolas Sarkozy returns: The ex-President is preparing to fight for the leadership of France's main opposition party – but will he win big enough?

    Sarkozy returns

    The ex-President is preparing to fight for the leadership of France's main opposition party – but will he win big enough?
    Is the criticism of Ed Miliband a coded form of anti-Semitism?

    Is the criticism of Miliband anti-Semitic?

    Attacks on the Labour leader have coalesced around a sense that he is different, weird, a man apart. But is the criticism more sinister?
    Ouija boards are the must-have gift this Christmas, fuelled by a schlock horror film

    Ouija boards are the must-have festive gift

    Simon Usborne explores the appeal - and mysteries - of a century-old parlour game
    There's a Good Girl exhibition: How female creatives are changing the way women are portrayed in advertising

    In pictures: There's a Good Girl exhibition

    The new exhibition reveals how female creatives are changing the way women are portrayed in advertising
    UK firm Biscuiteers is giving cookies a makeover - from advent calendars to doll's houses

    UK firm Biscuiteers is giving cookies a makeover

    It worked with cupcakes, doughnuts and macarons so no wonder someone decided to revamp the humble biscuit
    Can SkySaga capture the Minecraft magic?

    Can SkySaga capture the Minecraft magic?

    It's no surprise that the building game born in Sweden in 2009 and now played by millions, has imitators keen to construct their own mega money-spinner
    The King's School is way ahead of the pack when it comes to using the latest classroom technology

    Staying connected: The King's School

    The school in Cambridgeshire is ahead of the pack when it comes to using the latest classroom technology. Richard Garner discovers how teachers and pupils stay connected
    Christmas 2014: 23 best women's perfumes

    Festively fragrant: the best women's perfumes

    Give a loved one a luxe fragrance this year or treat yourself to a sensual pick-me-up
    Arsenal vs Borussia Dortmund: Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain celebrates century with trademark display of speed and intuition

    Arsenal vs Borussia Dortmund

    The Ox celebrates century with trademark display of speed and intuition
    Billy Joe Saunders vs Chris Eubank Jnr: When two worlds collide

    When two worlds collide

    Traveller Billy Joe Saunders did not have a pampered public-school upbringing - unlike Saturday’s opponent Chris Eubank Jnr
    Homeless Veterans Christmas Appeal: Drifting and forgotten - turning lives around for ex-soldiers

    Homeless Veterans Christmas Appeal: Turning lives around for ex-soldiers

    Our partner charities help veterans on the brink – and get them back on their feet
    Putin’s far-right ambition: Think-tank reveals how Russian President is wooing – and funding – populist parties across Europe to gain influence in the EU

    Putin’s far-right ambition

    Think-tank reveals how Russian President is wooing – and funding – populist parties across Europe to gain influence in the EU
    Tove Jansson's Moominland: What was the inspiration for Finland's most famous family?

    Escape to Moominland

    What was the inspiration for Finland's most famous family?