08/11/2012 09:50 pm ET Updated Oct 11, 2012

When Great Cinema Becomes Propaganda

We are 12 weeks away from election day, just within striking distance of a series of delicious October Surprises. Anything could happen. Votes hang in the balance.

But this year, the biggest October Surprise might not have been a surprise at all -- Zero Dark Thirty, an Oscar contender released by Sony Pictures.

In August 2011 -- just three months after Osama bin Laden was killed by US forces in Operation Geronimo -- Rep. Peter T. King (Republican Chairman of the Committee on Homeland Security) expressed concern that the Obama administration had jeopardized national security when it cooperated with Kathryn Bigelow and Mark Boal (of The Hurt Locker fame) on a film about the mission that killed bin Laden.

White House Press Secretary Jay Carney admitted that the White House had provided information to the Zero Dark Thirty team but insisted that the White House does not discuss classified information with filmmakers. "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," he said.

The stakes are high. The goal in declassifying material, King argued, is to provide the information to Congress and the American people, not to filmmakers "in favor of a cinematographic view of history" -- that is, propaganda. But the concern runs deeper: Some claim that leaks of classified information regarding Operation Geronimo resulted in the arrests of Pakistanis who were thought to have assisted the CIA in the raid. If Zero Dark Thirty reveals essential details about Geronimo, what is entertainment for the public might in fact compromise the lives of CIA sources and operatives.

Phil Strub, Director of Entertainment Media, which oversees the Pentagon's cooperation with the film industry, pointed out that it was common to provide filmmakers with information, research and support to lend authenticity to military depictions.

"I took your guidance and spoke to the WH and had a good meeting," wrote Boal, according to a transcript obtained by Judicial Watch, a self-described "organization that investigates and fights government corruption." "[T]hey were forward leaning and interested in sharing their point of view; command and control; so that was great, thank you." Hundreds of pages reveal extensive, though at times restrained and cautious, collaboration between the administration and the filmmakers.

In a June 2011 document, Strub appears to state that the film "expected to have a 4th quarter 2012 release" -- reportedly weeks before the 2012 election. If there were ever an opportunity for Obama to remind the public of his greatest accomplishment, this was it. Was Zero Dark Thirty Obama propaganda?

Maureen Dowd gave that suspicion weight when she suggested that the White House was counting on a film project to remind voters of one of Obama's major accomplishments and to counter his "growing reputation as ineffectual." What would amount to an extended commercial about the greatest moment of Obama's presidency would do wonders to combat his image a modern-day Merkin Muffley.

Then, in October 2011, The New York Times' Media Decoder blog cited unnamed sources when it announced that the film's release would be pushed back to after the election. The post also stated that Sony executives privately said they had chosen the release date not as an October surprise, but as a business decision (it was, apparently, the best available spot for a thriller).

Combating claims of partisanship, Bigelow and Boal released a statement saying that the mission 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." On August 6, Boal told Entertainment Weekly that there is "no political agenda in the film. Full stop. Period." When asked if he interviewed Obama, Boal reportedly laughed and said, "Next."

Did the Pentagon, CIA and Obama administration behave improperly in collaborating on a film that might help Obama's chances of reelection? "There is nothing illegal in assisting a filmmaker on a project related to the presidency," says Josh Lockman, a Lecturer on international law at the USC Gould School of Law, "as long as it was cleared by the proper agencies. The practical reality -- which is the politicization of this film in Obama's favor -- is the real issue."

Filmmakers and studios, of course, have a first-amendment right to release films that meet their interests. It would be a dangerous development if the industry were forced to bend to political forces in determining its release dates. That freedom is a necessary condition for a vibrant marketplace of ideas. Ultimately, if viewers dislike the political dimensions of a movie, they may choose not to see it. And filmmakers with their own stories (and their own release dates) are free to bring them to the public when they wish.

Whether Sony Pictures originally sought to release the film just before the election to aid Obama's prospects, and whether it pushed back the release date for political reasons, remain uncertain. Regardless, the studio finds itself in the awkward position of fielding accusations that it is using a high-profile film to influence an election. Its best defense -- and a perfectly reasonable one -- is that the release date was a business decision, not a political one.

But those considerations are converging. If the fall were an optimal time for a thriller, then Sony might have ceded that key advantage to avoid political heat, which is costly. The damage to the studio's image might have been worse than enjoying a prime spot in the release schedule. Pulling apart economics from philosophy is becoming more and more difficult in Hollywood.

"It is most certainly not a problem for a studio to make this movie, even if it intended the film to be propaganda," says Patricia Eberwine, an attorney at Latham & Watkins, an international law firm. "The problem would arise if the government prevented films that were anti-Obama or presented a countervailing view. We don't see Dinesh D'Souza having that problem."

Studios are renewing their interest in political, journalistic stories in the vein of The Hurt Locker and Zero Dark Thirty, which are not only entertaining but important to our national discourse and collective memory. This will not be the last time that a film will look like propaganda when it takes on political dimensions. Code Name: Geronimo, Harvey Weinstein's competing bin Laden picture, was reportedly planned for release ahead of the election and closer to Zero Dark Thirty, though once again business and political agendas blur. Lincoln, Steven Spielberg's Abraham Lincoln biopic about leadership during a crisis, was also reportedly pushed back to 10 days after the election.

Studios have a responsibility -- a very grave one -- to conduct their research legally and responsibly. Administrations and government agencies must ensure that the release of classified information does not compromise national security. A report that the CIA is revisiting its approach to the entertainment industry is a good sign that it takes its relationship with Hollywood seriously. And presidents who look to Hollywood to shape the national consciousness must put national-security interests ahead of electoral ones, and prepare for the PR risks they invite.

After that, Hollywood should continue to function as the free, independent, imaginative factory of stories that it is. The bin Laden raid is a real accomplishment of Obama's presidency, one he deserves credit for, and one which should make for a captivating film. Studios will continue to explore these victories across administrations -- each with its own release date.