Peter Huck: Osama - from showdown to showtime

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Osama bin Laden. Photo / AP
Osama bin Laden. Photo / AP

After the hit, the movie. The news that Sony Pictures is making a film dramatising the United States special forces raid in May that killed al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden is hardly a surprise.

It promises thrills, action and elite good guys who take out America's Most Wanted terrorist.

All of which looks good for President Barack Obama.

But Sony's decision to release Kill Bin Laden on October 12 next year, just weeks before the presidential election that will determine whether Obama retains the White House, has sparked indignant Republican claims that the movie is propaganda aided and abetted by Hollywood liberals.

They have a point. Last April, Sony held a fundraiser for the President. Liberal rich Hollywood is an important Obama war chest. And the film's director, Kathryn Bigelow, who won an Oscar for The Hurt Locker, about a US bomb disposal squad in Iraq, is an Obama fan.

"I hope and pray that US forces will be withdrawn immediately from Iraq, and only one man is capable of doing that, Mr Barack Obama," she said in 2008 before the Illinois senator became President.

But what lifts Republican protests away from being sour grapes is a claim that the White House gave Bigelow and The Hurt Locker screenwriter Mark Boal, a journalist embedded with US forces in Iraq, access to secret details about the May 1 raid that killed "Geronimo", the US code name given to bin Laden.

The brouhaha erupted after New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd said the White House was "counting" on a favourable buzz from Bigelow's forthcoming film, hoping the big screen would counter punishing polls and the worrisome public perception Obama was "ineffectual".

"The moviemakers are getting top-level access to the most classified mission in history," said Dowd, noting that Boal had also attended a CIA ceremony honouring the navy Seal team.

It was a red flag to Republican bulls. Republican congressman Peter King, chairman of the House Committee on Homeland Security, sent an accusatory letter to the US Defence Department and the CIA, "regarding ongoing leaks of classified information regarding sensitive military operations", allegedly fed to the moviemakers by Team Obama.

King's letter echoed Pentagon concerns the Seals' "15 minutes of fame lasted about 14 minutes too long", and might jeopardise the security of future operations. The brass wanted the special forces team to vanish back into the shadows.

King asked if the military and CIA would vet Kill Bin Laden to prevent tactics, techniques, procedures, intelligence sources or methods being compromised.

Sony refused to comment but is probably more intent on besting a rival Seal movie - a script about killing bin Laden immediately after 9/11 has been floating around since 2006 - than outing spooks.

And the White House seems intent on polishing a self-serving narrative, perhaps to counter reports - denied by China - that Pakistan let Chinese military engineers inspect the "stealth" skin on a crashed US Black Hawk helicopter, blown up by the Seals in the raid.

Undeterred, King demanded an inquiry, saying : "This alleged collaboration [between the White House and Hollywood] belies a desire for transparency in favour of a cinematographic view of history."

Transparency is rare in Washington or Hollywood, but his claim was catnip to Republicans.

Conservative talk show host and movie producer Douglas Urbanski felt Sony's release date was "very, very deliberate". Urbanski has form. His 2000 movie The Contender - good Democrat with sexual Achilles heel plagued by Republican ogre - debuted on the eve of the Al Gore-George W. Bush presidential contest, a move Urbanski felt was "without a doubt a deliberate attempt to influence the election".

Bashing Hollywood plays well with the GOP base, which regards the West Coast as a lefty viper pit, a prejudice cemented by a recent book, Primetime Propaganda, that reveals - yes! - some film-makers "have scorn for conservatives" and try to "shape America in their own leftish image" via insidious TV sitcoms like M*A*S*H, Happy Days, Sesame Street and Friends.

Chalk up one for King's camp. If nothing else the New York congressman - who has also voiced fears to the FBI that, after claims Murdoch hacks may have tried to illegally access phone records of 9/11 victims, Americans are "vulnerable" to the "parasitic strains" of "yellow journalism" - has stoked the always glowing conservative resentment of media elites.

The White House dismissed King's claims as "ridiculous" and "simply false".

Only details about the President's role in the raid were provided, not operational details or classified material, said spokesman Jay Carney.

He then stuck in the knife: "And I would hope that as we face a continued threat from terrorism, the House Committee on Homeland Security would have more important topics to discuss than a movie."

Well, Republicans seek to exploit any fault line in the President's re-election toolbox. And with two hot wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, they hope to land blows by questioning Obama's credentials, as with GOP contender Rick Perry's suggestion this week that only veterans, like him, can win the military's respect as Commander-in-Chief.

Back in Hollywood, Bigelow and Boal sought to douse the flames. In a statement last week they said their project to give bin Laden his Hollywood close-up had been ongoing "for many years" and covered "the collective efforts" of the Clinton, Bush and Obama administrations, using the CIA and the Defence Department, to hunt down the al-Qaeda leader.

As for concerns Kill Bin Laden would amount to Obama propaganda, they said the movie would reflect "an American triumph, both heroic and non-partisan".

Certainly, in a business where projects languish for years in turnaround limbo, waiting to be approved by a studio distribution deal, the Seal raid was a boon.

Bin Laden's death propelled the Bigelow project into the fast lane - Sony bought the rights at a Cannes Film Festival auction in May.

And while Boal has ruffled military feathers before, most notably in a March 2011 Rolling Stone story, The Kill Team, which details an episode where US forces murdered Afghan civilians, Sony will probably seek to get Washington onboard.

Film-makers want authenticity, preferably on the cheap - Dateline Hollywood says Kill Bin Laden has a budget of US$25 million ($30.5 million) to US$30 million, which means lethal weaponry such as Black Hawk choppers will have to be borrowed.

The Defence Department, which maintains a Film Liaison Office in Los Angeles, wants good PR to aid recruitment. Studios need only submit scripts for approval.

The trade-off dates to World War II and, despite frosty spells - Vietnam movies like Apocalypse Now and The Deer Hunter brought Defence Department odium - happier liaisons include Top Gun and Black Hawk Down. But there are pitfalls. One Pentagon-approved TV series, Profiles from the Front Line, about the Afghan war, was slammed for sanitising the whole bloody business, as was Saving Private Lynch, which swallowed the official version about the US soldier caught in an Iraqi ambush then "rescued" by US special forces, a fanciful scenario exploded by non-embedded correspondents.

Sony says Kill Bin Laden is still in script development, which means the FLO has no screenplay to appraise before entering a formal agreement on loaning materiel for the film.

Despite King's calls for transparency it is by no means certain anyone on the Hill will want to probe too deeply into the Seal raid. Media coverage - such as last week's you-are-there New Yorker account - has been mostly favourable.

Certainly, the fog of war obscures more contentious details.

Raelynn Hillhouse - who the Guardian says "regularly breaks news on the clandestine world of private contractors and US intelligence" on The Spy Who Billed Me blog - dismisses the New Yorker's "puff" piece and suggests Islamabad approved the covert US assassination.

She alleges the Saudis, using an intermediary, paid Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence agency to keep bin Laden under house arrest, necessary to stop his Wahhabist supporters dethroning the House of Saud.

But Hillhouse doubts "we will ever have definitive answers". Instead, the White House will probably pump up the patriotic version.

"What I find so disturbing is that the Administration knows that large portions of the US finding bin Laden story are fabrication and it's very keen on selling this cover story to the US public," she says.

This is "not to hide key operational details and capacities, but rather to satisfy the PR needs of a re-election campaign. The Soviets couldn't have done a better job".

In other words, she suggests, it's politics. The media narrative makes the President look a decisive man of action, the liberal version of George W. Bush's stunt landing a plane on a US carrier in 2003 to declare "mission accomplished" after invading Iraq.

"It will be very interesting when the timeline of the CIA's knowledge of where Osama bin Laden was being hidden and the US decision to go in and take out bin Laden comes to light," says Hillhouse.

"It's my understanding that it will not at all fit with the official narrative of the quick acting, decisive leader."

King may be barking up the wrong tree: burnishing Obama's image is good cover for America's shadowy "war on terror". As truth is war's first victim, the true story, if it emerges, will probably be messy, full of loose ends, and unflattering to combatants on both sides.

- NZ Herald

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