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

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Thomas carried Lady Edith over the flames in her bedroom in Downton Abbey series five

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Ben Affleck as Nick Dunne, seated next to a picture of his missing wife Amy, played by Rosamund Pike

film
Arts and Entertainment
Rachel, Chandler and Ross try to get Ross's sofa up the stairs in the famous 'Pivot!' scene

Friends 20th anniversary
Arts and Entertainment
Lena Dunham

books
Arts and Entertainment
A bit rich: Maggie Smith in Downton Abbey

There’s revolution in the air, but one lady’s not for turning

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Chloe-Jasmine Whicello impressed the judges and the audience at Wembley Arena with a sultry performance
TVReview: Who'd have known Simon was such a Roger Rabbit fan?
Arts and Entertainment
Nick Frost will star in the Doctor Who 2014 Christmas special

TV
Arts and Entertainment
A spell in the sun: Emma Stone and Colin Firth star in ‘Magic in the Moonlight’
filmReview: Magic In The Moonlight
Arts and Entertainment
Friends is celebrating its 20th anniversary this year
TV
Arts and Entertainment
Ben Whishaw is replacing Colin Firth as the voice of Paddington Bear

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Actor and director Zach Braff

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Maisie Williams plays 'bad ass' Arya Stark in Game of Thrones

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Liam Neeson said he wouldn't

TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Meera Syal was a member of the team that created Goodness Gracious Me

TV
Arts and Entertainment
The former Doctor Who actor is to play a vicar is search of a wife

film
Arts and Entertainment

music
Arts and Entertainment
Pointless host Alexander Armstrong will voice Danger Mouse on CBBC

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Pharrell dismissed the controversy surrounding

music
Arts and Entertainment
Jack Huston is the new Ben-Hur

film
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.

    Syria air strikes: ‘Peace President’ Obama had to take stronger action against Isis after beheadings

    Robert Fisk on Syria air strikes

    ‘Peace President’ Obama had to take stronger action against Isis after beheadings
    Will Lindsay Lohan's West End debut be a turnaround moment for her career?

    Lindsay Lohan's West End debut

    Will this be a turnaround moment for her career?
    'The Crocodile Under the Bed': Judith Kerr's follow-up to 'The Tiger Who Came to Tea'

    The follow-up to 'The Tiger Who Came to Tea'

    Judith Kerr on what inspired her latest animal intruder - 'The Crocodile Under the Bed' - which has taken 46 years to get into print
    BBC Television Centre: A nostalgic wander through the sets, studios and ghosts of programmes past

    BBC Television Centre

    A nostalgic wander through the sets, studios and ghosts of programmes past
    Secret politics of the weekly shop

    The politics of the weekly shop

    New app reveals political leanings of food companies
    Beam me up, Scottie!

    Beam me up, Scottie!

    Celebrity Trekkies from Alex Salmond to Barack Obama
    Beware Wet Paint: The ICA's latest ambitious exhibition

    Beware Wet Paint

    The ICA's latest ambitious exhibition
    Pink Floyd have produced some of rock's greatest ever album covers

    Pink Floyd have produced some of rock's greatest ever album covers

    Can 'The Endless River' carry on the tradition?
    Sanctuary for the suicidal

    Sanctuary for the suicidal

    One mother's story of how London charity Maytree helped her son with his depression
    A roller-coaster tale from the 'voice of a generation'

    Not That Kind of Girl:

    A roller-coaster tale from 'voice of a generation' Lena Dunham
    London is not bedlam or a cradle of vice. In fact it, as much as anywhere, deserves independence

    London is not bedlam or a cradle of vice

    In fact it, as much as anywhere, deserves independence
    Vivienne Westwood 'didn’t want' relationship with Malcolm McLaren

    Vivienne Westwood 'didn’t want' relationship with McLaren

    Designer 'felt pressured' into going out with Sex Pistols manager
    Jourdan Dunn: Model mother

    Model mother

    Jordan Dunn became one of the best-paid models in the world
    Apple still coolest brand – despite U2 PR disaster

    Apple still the coolest brand

    Despite PR disaster of free U2 album
    Scottish referendum: The Yes vote was the love that dared speak its name, but it was not to be

    Despite the result, this is the end of the status quo

    Boyd Tonkin on the fall-out from the Scottish referendum