The New York Times: Film About the Hunt for Bin Laden Leads to a Pentagon Investigation

New York Times — by Michael Cieply

LOS ANGELES — When the movies get real, moviemakers can count on real headaches.

Mark Boal and Kathryn Bigelow, the team behind a planned Hollywood film about the hunt for Osama bin Laden, were caught up this week in the kind of dispute that more often ensnares journalists. It happened when Representative Peter T. King, Republican of New York, disclosed on Thursday that the Pentagon was investigating whether the filmmakers — who collaborated on the Oscar-winning project “The Hurt Locker” — had improper access to classified material for the still untitled Bin Laden movie.

Mr. King also said that the Central Intelligence Agency had informed him that it was reviewing its guidelines on interaction with the entertainment industry.

Mr. King has cited security concerns in pressing for an inquiry into the release of information about the May 1 Bin Laden raid in Pakistan. But for months he and others have also voiced suspicions that the film, an independent production to be released by Sony Pictures Entertainment, might exploit classified details of Bin Laden’s killing to boost President Obama’s political fortunes.

Originally scheduled to open shortly before the election, the film was moved to Dec. 19 after a hot public debate about its potential for partisan impact.

In addition, Michael Lynton, the Sony Pictures chief executive, has been a major backer of President Obama and last April organized a high-priced political fund-raising dinner on the Sony studio lot in Culver City, Calif., for the president and for the Democratic National Committee.

The investigation appears unlikely to affect the film’s production, expected to begin shortly, with Joel Edgerton and Jessica Chastain among its stars. A C.I.A. spokesman, Preston Golson, said the agency had worked in the past with writers and filmmakers with a goal of “an accurate portrayal of the men and women of the C.I.A., their vital mission and the commitment to public service that defines them.”

“And it is an absolute,” he continued, “that the protection of national security equities is an integral part of our mission.”

A White House spokesman on Friday declined comment beyond pointing to remarks last August, when Mr. King first raised the issue, in which White House Press Secretary Jay Carney called Mr. King’s assertions ridiculous.

But the investigation reveals the risks of an aggressively journalistic approach, once rare in the studio world. That approach has been pioneered lately by Mr. Boal — a writer and producer whose coming projects include one about Julian Assange of WikiLeaks — and by Sony Pictures, which last year surprised the movie world with “The Social Network,” a distinctly reportorial examination of Facebook’s founder, Mark Zuckerberg.

The studio made that film without acquiring life rights from Mr. Zuckerberg, relying instead on legal doctrines of fair use and the fair reporting of public court proceedings, though with a fictionalization that is inevitable in the movies. Facebook’s executives debated the wisdom of a lawsuit but eventually decided to ride out the wave of unwanted, and often unflattering, publicity.

Reached by telephone on Friday, Mr. Boal declined to discuss the Pentagon investigation or to say whether he had been asked to cooperate. In a journalistic career that has paralleled his work as a screenwriter, Mr. Boal has written extensively for publications like The Village Voice and Rolling Stone. His journalistic work while embedded with troops in Iraq in 2004 eventually led to his fictional script for “The Hurt Locker,” which was released in 2008.

Mr. Boal was researching a real-life account of the hunt for Bin Laden before Navy Seals killed him in Pakistan last year. With backing from Annapurna Pictures, an independent film company owned by Megan Ellison, the daughter of Oracle’s chief executive, Larry Ellison, he had already begun working with government agencies when Sony agreed to become the film’s distributor.

(With Mr. Boal, Ms. Ellison’s company has acquired life rights from Bill Keller, the former executive editor of The New York Times, in connection with their planned WikiLeaks film.)

While thousands of films have been based on real life, studios in the past only rarely dabbled in current news developments, because filmmaking is slow, and events move quickly. That can leave a company with a movie based on a changing set of facts, or, worse, with legal disputes that might block its ability to release a costly picture.

That almost happened five years ago, when prosecutors provided the filmmaker Nick Cassavetes with information for a movie, “Alpha Dog,” about the fugitive murder suspect Jesse James Hollywood. Mr. Hollywood was then captured, leading to an unsuccessful attempt by his lawyer to block the movie’s release by Universal Pictures, lest it taint the jury pool.

Still, Sony lately has been experimenting with films that closely follow current events. With the help of rapid-fire digital filmmaking techniques, it released the Michael Jackson concert film “This Is It” only months after that singer’s death in 2009. Then, working with the writer Aaron Sorkin and the director David Fincher, it tackled Mr. Zuckerberg’s story using court records and other sources as a book on which the film was ostensibly based was being finished.

On Friday Ann Boyd, a spokeswoman for Sony, declined to discuss the Pentagon investigation. And Ms. Ellison did not respond to a query.

But Martin Garbus, a First Amendment lawyer who has represented journalists and occasionally filmmakers in disputes, counseled hanging tough.

Citing what he called a lack of public evidence to support any claim of wrongdoing, Mr. Garbus said, “I’ve never seen a situation like this.”