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The race to shoot Bin Laden

Kathryn Bigelow is rushing to put the killing of the Al-Qaeda leader on the big screen. But she has competition Geronimo. Zero Dark Thirty. Neptune Spear. DEVGRU. Jawbreaker. Crankshaft. Cairo. The military has a fetish for code names, and Hollywood has a fetish for the realities of men at war.

Two American films about the decade-long search for the world’s most wanted terrorist are racing to finish post-production. They are already provoking intense political controversy. American conservatives fear they will be used by Barack Obama to bolster his bid to win a second term in the presidential election on November 4. With the economy faltering, he is making the killing of Bin Laden in a daring night-time raid in May 2011 the cornerstone of his campaign.


Kathryn Bigelow’s Zero Dark Thirty and John Stockwell’s Code Name: Geronimo are both based on the controversial life of Osama Bin Laden Pic Courtesy/Getty Images

The more high-profile of the two films is Zero Dark Thirty. That’s American military code for 12.30am, the time when 23 members of the crack US Navy Seal Team 6 (also known as DEVGRU) arrived by helicopter at Bin Laden’s compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan, a garrison town in the foothills of the Himalayas. He had been in hiding there for more than five years, with three wives, a dozen children and grandchildren, about 100 chickens and some hair dye. Zero Dark Thirty is directed by Kathryn Bigelow and written by Mark Boal — the duo behind The Hurt Locker, the tough drama about a bomb squad in Iraq that won numerous Oscars in 2010, including best picture, best director and best original script for Bigelow and Boal. With a budget of more than $35m, and young stars including Joel Edgerton and Jessica Chastain, Zero Dark Thirty is set for release in America on December 19, allowing it to qualify for next year’s Oscars.

Yet Zero Dark Thirty will be beaten into cinemas by Code Name: Geronimo, made on a much smaller budget, with no big-name stars, by a first-time writer and a director, John Stockwell, best known for the bikini-clad surfing movie Blue Crush. While Bigelow filmed in the Himalayas, Stockwell had to make do with locations in New Mexico. It would be a mistake, however, to dismiss Code Name: Geronimo as a cheap attempt to cash in on the Bin Laden raid. One of its producers, Nicolas Chartier, won a best picture Oscar as producer of Bigelow’s The Hurt Locker.

Many suspect it’s being lined up as an "October surprise” in the American election. Weinstein, a long-time supporter of the Democrats, has already raised more than $500,000 for Obama’s re-election campaign. It wouldn’t be the first time he has tried to use a film to influence a presidential election: he released Michael Moore’s anti-Bush documentary, Fahrenheit 9/11, in the run-up to the 2004 election.

It was Zero Dark Thirty, though, that first raised conservative hackles, when the New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd revealed just how helpful the administration had been to Bigelow and Boal. “It was clear that the White House had outsourced the job of manning up the president’s image to Hollywood,” Dowd wrote last August, “when 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.”

Bigelow, 60, and Boal, 39, bristle at suggest that they were given special access for political reasons. “This was an American triumph, both heroic and non-partisan,” they said, “and there is no basis to suggest that our film will represent this enormous victory otherwise.”

Zero Dark Thirty was long in gestation. Originally, a very different film was planned, provisionally called Kill Bin Laden and focusing on the failed attempt to track down the Al-Qaeda leader just after the American invasion of Afghanistan post 9/11. That was close to moving ahead when the sensational news came through that Bin Laden had been found and killed. So the project was put on hold while Mark and Kathryn kind of gathered information.

When the film finally went into production, this February — fully financed by Megan Ellison, a 25-year-old software heiress — it was in unprecedented secrecy. Actors weren’t allowed to see complete scripts, but were given online links to their pages; once they had read them, the links became inoperative.

Chartier says Code Name: Geronimo will be “much more of an action movie”, focused on the specifics of the raid, than its rival, which is believed to take place over a time span of many years.

It will be intriguing to see how the competing film-makers tackle the trickiest issues. Will they show, as the New Yorker writer Nicholas Schmidle has made clear, that there was never any attempt to capture Bin Laden alive? The Sunday Times/The Interview PeopleĀ 

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