A Hollywood Movie Could Help Either Democrats or Republicans in the Presidential Election

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Robert Brent Toplin, Professor of History (retired), University of North Carolina, Wilmington, has published several books on history, politics, and film, and he operates a website, www.politicsoftheusa.com. His film-related books include "Reel History: In Defense of Hollywood," "History By Hollywood," and "Oliver Stone’s USA: Film, History, and Controversy."

Sometimes a movie from the Hollywood studios has the potential to affect a presidential election. Michael Moore’s Fahrenheit 9/11, screened in theaters during the presidential race of 2004, appeared to boost the fortunes of the Democratic candidate. Then a conservative effort to discredit the film eventually blunted Michael Moore’s impact on public opinion. This year, a new movie in development about the hunt for Osama bin Laden appeared likely to remind voters of President Obama’s role in defeating the notorious terrorist. It was scheduled to appear in theaters in October. But once again, Republicans found a way to undermine cinema’s influence in a tight presidential contest. They pressured executives at Sony Pictures to delay the screening. Evidently, that pressure made an impact. Sony later announced it would release the movie after the November elections. Nevertheless, politicians and pundits on the right continue to complain about the bin Laden film. They have found a new opportunity to treat this Hollywood production as a political football.

This year’s controversy relates to Zero Dark Thirty (that working title represents militaryspeak for an early starting time). The movie’s principal creators are director Kathryn Bigelow and writer Mark Boal, the team behind The Hurt Locker, a 2008 film about the Iraq War. The Hurt Locker received Hollywood’s award for Best Picture, partly for its realistic-looking portrayal of the work of an elite bomb squad. Boal, a journalist, was well aware of the risks soldiers took in trying to defuse bombs. Back in 2004, he had been embedded with U.S. troops in Iraq.

The Hurt Locker set a standard that Bigelow and Boals hope to establish for their film about bin Laden. The director and writer want their new production to benefit from careful research. In their quest for verisimilitude, they sought information from Washington officials about efforts to find bin Laden and plans for the assault on his compound by U.S. Navy SEALs.

People at the White House, the CIA and the Defense Department met and talked with the filmmakers, as is often the case when Hollywood artists send requests for information about military actions. Officials cannot release classified evidence regarding operations, but they often provide some background details. Many acclaimed Hollywood films about World War II and the Korean and Vietnam conflicts were produced with such assistance. Director Lionel Chetwynd, who has produced movies with conservatively-oriented themes, received help from George W. Bush’s administration for the production of DC 9/11: Time of Crisis. That made-for-TV movie dealt with the nine days between the attacks on the World Trade Center and the President’s televised message to Congress. President George W. Bush assisted Chetwynd by granting him an hour-long interview.

Republican protests against Zero Dark Thirty turned quieter after Sony Pictures agreed to push the release date back to December 19, 2012, but the objections returned this May when a conservative organization, Judicial Watch, forced the release of numerous emails associated with the production. Using the Freedom of Information Act to publicize communications between Washington leaders and the filmmakers, officers at Judicial Watch claimed the emails revealed an inappropriately cozy relationship between Washington and Hollywood. GOP congressmen quickly jumped on the issue. New York Representative Peter King, Chairman of the House Committee on Homeland Security, charged the filmmakers with engaging in an “extremely close, unprecedented, and potentially dangerous collaboration.” King asked whether the Obama White House was granting filmmakers classified information that could be useful to America’s enemies.

Washington authorities have brushed off the criticisms, maintaining that discussions between movie artists and the White House, the CIA, and the Defense Department are common. CIA spokesperson Jennifer Youngblood pointed out that her Agency has a long history of cooperating with the entertainment industry, and the protection of national security is always “paramount” in these communications. A Pentagon spokesperson, George Little, indicated that the Department of Defense and related agencies “regularly engage with the entertainment industry to inform projects ranging from books to documentaries to feature films.”

Republicans are reluctant to let go of the issue. Even though they succeeded in pushing the movie’s release date beyond the November elections, they continue to talk about the film. That discussion is politically useful because the mere suggestion of a lapse in security tarnishes the Obama administration’s image of success in protecting the nation against foreign threats.

So far Republicans have not produced any smoking guns to support their charge that the Obama administration compromised national security through talks with filmmakers, but attention to the issue resonates because the Obama White House is facing other difficulties related to leaked information. Recently, details emerged in the news media about secret drone strikes and the development of a computer virus that attacked Iran’s nuclear program. It is not clear who supplied that confidential information to the national media. Against this background, Republicans’ protests about “dangerous” collaboration with Hollywood filmmakers may impress some voters.

We are used to thinking about Hollywood movies as entertainment, not as political factors in national elections. In 2004, however, Michael Moore’s Fahrenheit 9/11 had the potential of shaping voter opinion during a close presidential contest. This year a Hollywood production that will not even be released until after the elections could play a role in affecting voters’ judgments about the effectiveness of President Obama’s leadership.

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