With a simple sentence, Maureen Dowd caused quite a stir between Washington and Hollywood last week, when she wrote that filmmakers Kathryn Bigelow and Mark Boal were “getting top-level access to the most classified mission in history” for their movie about the raid that killed Osama bin Laden.
The suggestion that the collaboration would yield electoral benefit (“Just as Obamaland was hoping, the movie is scheduled to open on Oct. 12, 2012 — perfectly timed to give a home-stretch boost to a campaign that has grown tougher,” Dowd wrote) led to swift consequences.
Last Wednesday, Rep. Peter T. King (R, N.Y.) called for an investigation into the alleged exchange, and the Obama administration, along with the filmmakers, subsequently issued statements denying a campaign ploy.
White House spokesman Jay Carney called the claims “ridiculous,” sneered at Hollywood, and took aim at King, who is chairman of the House Committee on Homeland Security: “I would hope that as we face the continued threat from terrorism, the House Committee on Homeland Security would have more important topics to discuss than a movie,” Carney said.
Bigelow and Boal, who collaborated on the Oscar-winning “The Hurt Locker” issued a joint statement that did not so much deny that they had received special access, but rather, insisted that it came from several administrations, not just the Obama White House.
According to Entertainment Weekly, the statement read:
“Our upcoming film project about the decade long pursuit of Bin Laden has been in the works for many years and integrates the collective efforts of three administrations, including those of Presidents Clinton, Bush, and Obama, as well as the cooperative strategies and implementation by the Department of Defense and the Central Intelligence Agency. Indeed, the dangerous work of finding the world’s most wanted man was carried out by individuals in the military and intelligence communities who put their lives at risk for the greater good without regard for political affiliation. This was an American triumph, both heroic and non-partisan, and there is no basis to suggest that our film will represent this enormous victory otherwise.”
While it is true that some of Obama’s highest approval ratings came with the news of Osama bin Laden’s death, the result of an expert raid carried out by United States SEALS on his watch, the morale boost was soon upstaged by a demoralizing debt crisis. Whether the movie will sustain its subject matter’s power and relevance a year from now is uncertain—not to mention dependent upon the quality of its realization on screen. But still, if White House cooperation with Hollywood serves Obama’s campaign, it is not necessarily a bad thing. Why shouldn’t a Hollywood movie have political impact?
Unlike a free press, Hollywood is not one of those institutions upon which democracy depends. It is a for-profit industry that can promote or deride whatever causes, ideas or people it chooses. It can also choose to promote nothing at all. The only legal sensitivity here is whether or not any of the aforementioned administrations—Obama’s, Clinton’s or Bush’s—shared classified information with undeserving parties. But once those parties have that information, it’s up to them to decide what to do with it. And there’s nothing morally wrong with Hollywood taking a side.
Perhaps Peter King is upset because he wants Michele Bachmann to become president.
UPDATE: A reader wrote:
I don’t believe Rep. King is focusing on the morality of Hollywood taking a side; rather, his contention seems to be about whether the Obama admin should be providing certain classified info to Hollywood filmmakers. The criticism of King from those on the Left reminds me of their accusations during the Bush II years that free expression was being stifled, while at the same time the Dixie Chicks, Green Day, Michael Moore et al where making mucho dinero and gracing the covers of Time and Newsweek.
While I agree that King was concerned about whether the Obama administration had shared classified information, I do think it was opportune, not to mention melodramatic, for him to call for an investigation. Just because Maureen Dowd wrote that the filmmakers were getting special access does not mean they were getting “classified” information. Would the Obama administration be so foolish as to share classified documents with Hollywood, who will presumably broadcast that knowledge for anyone to see? Nicholas Schmidle’s account of the raid in the New Yorker was as well informed as it could have been, and Schmidle admitted he had not interviewed a single SEAL. No one called for an investigation there. But the insinuation that this film could in some way help Obama’ campaign prompted King to act, and the assumption of a congressional investigation is that something unlawful or illicit took place.
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