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Right Here, Right Now: Thoughts on Kathryn Bigalow’s Osama Bin Ladin Project…

It’s interesting that the piece of news which grabbed me most coming out of the whole news cycle around the assassination of Osama Bin Ladin by US troops in Pakistan wasn’t any of the discussion over the legality of the act, nor the debate over whether assassination is now an acceptable tool of foreign policy. It was the near-instantaneous announcement that Kathryn Bigalow would be working on a feature film adaptation of the killing, an adaptation that reportedly has a mostly finished script and a lead actor already. Perhaps it’s a stunning illustration of just how quick the news and media cycle is, but I wonder how quick we feel the need to turn history into cinema.

If you believe the suggestions that screenwriter and journalist Mark Boal was already working on a script about the team assigned to track down Bin Laden (which I do, even though cynics might suggest the script is being so heavily rewritten it’s practically a first draft), it’s simply a case of Bigalow’s next project being given a powerhouse of an ending by the forces of fate and chance. It’s a perfect example of blind luck, as one imagines the trouble that might have been caused if the death of Bin Laden happened after the filming but before release – preemptively dating the entire exercise.

Still, it feels very fresh for a film that is entering production now, and will probably be aiming for a major release this Oscar season, while everything is still so deliciously “topical.” It is genuinely impressive, from a technical perspective, that Hollywood can work fast enough to get everything turned around and started (and finished) so quickly after the news breaks. It’s a wonderful testament to the talent of those involved that the film might see release within the same year as the events it depicts.

Shoudl we wait until the Hurt settles?

However, I still feel distinctly uncomfortable with the idea. It just feels, perhaps, like this is far too close to the event to be comfortable. There has really been very little chance for the world (and even America) to catch their breath following the killing, or for the dust to settle. Important questions are still being asked about various aspects of the death, and I imagine more details will be uncovered in the weeks (if not months and years to come). However, it isn’t the issue of factual fidelity that concerns me – I don’t mind if one or two details are changed to transition to screen. I’m a pragmatist, the story needs to work as a story, a format real life seldom conforms to.

I’m more concerned about the fact that it seems the world isn’t entirely sure how it feels about the events that occurred. Some might argue that it is not the place of the American President to sanction the assassination of a target on foreign soil, while others would make the point that it would be impossible to take the terrorist alive without creating a political quagmire. There are cases where movies have been released depicting historical events almost as soon as they occurred – President Nixon resigned in 1974 and All the President’s Men was released in 1976, for example – but these only seem to occur where some collective consensus can be reached.

Oliver Stone's dogged commitment to bringing W. to screen...

Watergate cut a hole in the American nation, and Nixon (even today) stands as an almost universally despised and mocked figure, something felt even stronger in the immediate wake of the scandal. It was a complex event, but the public opinion was clear. However, once that sort of ambiguity creeps into frame, things become a bit more complicated. Consider, for instance, Oliver Stone’s bio-pic W., released before President Bush had even left office. Bush might be a popular political punching bag, but he enjoyed a second term, and the issues created by his presidency are still being discussed and debated today. I think that pushing a movie like W. out so fast prevented consensus from settling, and also seemed like a very opinionated piece of cinema released long before the dust had settled.

Consider, for example, how long it took American cinema to really dig into the War on Terror – even politically ham-fisted movies like Syrianna weren’t released until four years after the September 11th attacks. Oliver Stone’s World Trade Centre and United 93 weren’t released until 2006. That’s a significant gap right there, and I think that the gap affords the opportunity for reflection and consideration.

Am I right to be Cage-y about this?

Of course, Bigalow has an incredible film to her name that already tackles the War on Terror, The Hurt Locker. It’s a fantastic piece of cinema which treads some of the same ground, but I’m not entirely convinced that makes her a perfect fit. The film was powerful and successful, and I think a large part of the charm came down to the fact that it was relatively politically disengaged. It had some well-observed points about the nature of the ideological conflict, but it focused on the individuals and the personalities involved, while exploring the apolitical realities of modern warfare. I don’t think you can take that approach to the assassination of Osama Bin Laden, because it’s not something you can politically disengage from that easily.

This isn’t to say I doubt Bigalow’s abilities – it’s just that I’m wary of handling the issue when it’s so fresh that no universal consensus has been formed, or no real debate has taken place as of yet.

3 Responses

  1. I think I disagree with the idea that it’s better to wait after a historical event. Films are just as much a part of shaping the historical consensus as any other medium. Why shouldn’t they contribute? In fact, one could argue that making a movie after some kind historical consensus has been reached would be redundant (other than simply being entertaining as historical exploitation cinema).

    That being said, the idea of a “Kill Bin Laden” movie makes me feel icky. It feels too much like a snuff film and the celebration of death. I don’t begrudge anyone feeling happy for Bin Laden’s death, but a movie like this seems a little too much like “spiking the football”.

    • Yep, it’s hard for a film like that not to offend anybody, particularly when it’s goign to be so fresh in people’s mind.

      I don’t know, I see what you’re saying, but I’ve always seen major motion pictures serving to galvinise public opinion, rather than to spark debate. At least historical adaptations – I mean, fictional films like The Dark Knight and District 9 and such can probe sentiment without attracting the same scorn, because they’re “only fiction.” And there’s something awkward about films based around current affairs proposing a particular angle. Lions for Lambs and Syrianna sat uncomfortably with me, because they felt more like two-hour essays in political science rather than films in their own right. I think the great War on Terror film is at least a few years away, for example, because we’re still caught up in it.

      Of course, that said, it doesn’t mean that films about older events like The Reader or Valkyrie can’t bungle things as well (both containing somewhat unfortunate subtexts).

  2. The only problem I have with people celebrating Bin Laden’s death is that it re-opens some old wounds for people who suffered a loss during 9/11.

    Beyond that, let Bin Laden rot in hell. No amount of celebration could be deemed overkill (pardon the pun) in my eyes.

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