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Could 'Kill Bin Laden' affect the 2012 presidential election?

July 29, 2011 |  9:45 am

The debt-ceiling crisis may still be on the minds of voters when they head to the polls to choose a president 15 months from now. But on Thursday Sony threw a more subtle monkey wrench into the contest when it announced that it would release "Kill Bin Laden," Kathryn Bigelow's movie starring Joel Edgerton about the American efforts to kill the terrorist leader, on Oct. 12, 2012.

Whether purposeful or merely convenient, the choice has the potential to shade what will already be a fraught moment. The film will come out just 25 days before Americans head to the polls to elect a president -- meaning that "Kill Bin Laden," which reunites Bigelow with her "Hurt Locker" screenwriter Mark Boal, will likely still be in both movie theaters and in the cultural conversation when we next choose a leader.

On its face, and no doubt in the formulation of studio marketers, "Bin Laden" is a movie that sits above politics, an ideology-free "thriller" about a dangerous mission undertaken by strong-stomached heroes. But even though we don't yet know the still-gestating film’s level of political explicitness, it's impossible to separate many of the Navy SEAL moments from a real-world storyline. "Kill Bin Laden," which began life as a tale about the 2002 mission in the caves of Tora Bora, now will doubtless get a happy coda with the terrorist leader's assassination in May. That means that the film could overlap with not one but two political periods.

The original mission was carried out by a team sent by President George W. Bush that failed to capture the Al Qaeda leader in the months after Sept. 11, 2001. The second, of course, was the result of a strike force authorized by President Obama that successfully targeted the terrorist mastermind. In an election that is shaping up to be a test of Obama's effectiveness at home and abroad, Bigelow and Boal's movie will offer all kinds of cinematic reminders of real world questions that we’ll already be grappling with.

That doesn't mean the movie will directly affect the election, of course. One of the most widely seen political films of all time, Michael Moore's 2004 documentary, "Fahrenheit 9/11," made a strong statement against a sitting leader in the months leading up to a presidential election. But even though millions turned out to see it, the film didn't come close to unseating its primary target from power. Politics made it popular, but its popularity didn't make much of a difference, at least at the polls.

The situation here is also a bit distinct. The leaders whose actions “Kill Bin Laden” will implicitly celebrate will be an incumbent, which means if people walk away with a message, it will be one of endorsement, not opposition. And art tends to affect the real world more often in the latter pose.

But these may turn out to be small distinctions. In a moment when the country will be occupied  with who can best protect us, our reaction to a movie about an incumbent’s biggest coup will, at the very least, be a bellwether of how we feel about him. And it may even affect those feelings.


How should Hollywood react to the killing of Osama bin Laden?

Obama announces Osama bin Laden killed by U.S.

Joel Edgerton signs on for Kathryn Bigelow's bin Laden movie

-- Steven Zeitchik


Photo: Osama bin Laden in 1998. Credit: Rahimullah Yousafzai / Associated Press