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

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