Philip Zelikow, whose book about the missile crisis inspired the film and who attended the White House screening, says he didn’t realize how pivotal the occasion would become, both substantively and symbolically. “Ted Kennedy would become perhaps [Bush’s] single most important congressional ally in the months before 9/11” on health reform, Zelikow says. “So as an icebreaker with Ted Kennedy, I think [the screening] mattered. And the Bush people certainly picked it up and handled it in the appropriately graceful way. The movie gave them the occasion to remind people that the president is bigger than a political party.”
Politics have threaded their way through a number of movies that were or are about to be released this year. On Sunday, the National Geographic Channel aired “SEAL Team Six: The Raid on Osama bin Laden,” a docu-drama that’s hard not to see as timed by its producer — Obama supporter Harvey Weinstein — to remind voters of one of the president’s greatest strategic successes. (Last month, Weinstein released the conservative-tweaking political satire “Butter,” starring Jennifer Garner as a thinly veiled amalgam of Michele Bachmann and Sarah Palin.)
Weinstein and National Geographic officials have insisted that the air date of “SEAL Team Six” wasn’t intended to sway the election but instead to head off “Zero Dark Thirty,” a theatrical feature about the search for bin Laden due out later this year. That film ran into its own political buzz saw in 2011 when U.S. Rep. Peter T. King (R-N.Y.) accused the White House of leaking classified details of the mission to screenwriter Mark Boal and director Kathryn Bigelow in order to burnish Obama’s image. “Zero Dark Thirty” was scheduled for release in October until its distributor, Columbia Pictures, pushed the film back to December. (It will now open in New York and Los Angeles in December before opening throughout the country in January. The Weinstein Company similarly repositioned “Killing Them Softly,” a crime thriller starring Brad Pitt that alternates scenes of pulverizing violence with lacerating critiques of the current economy that spare neither Bush nor Obama.)
Boal insists that neither he or Bigelow have discussed how the election results will impact “Zero Dark Thirty,” either at the box office or as a cultural milestone. The question “hasn’t come up at all,” he wrote in an e-mail. Noting that the film is about career intelligence and military professionals, not the White House, Boal added, it “has no partisan agenda whatsoever. To me, the charges otherwise were completely bogus. But I hope people will see the movie and judge for themselves.”
As for the shifts in release dates, Boal says that decision was purely commercial; opening a movie in a few theaters in December and into January is a time-honored strategy for garnering award nominations and capitalizing on the ensuing buzz.
Still, it can’t hurt that “Zero Dark Thirty” will be appearing on screens after this year’s political rancor has dissipated. Studios rarely leave such things to chance: Marketing campaigns for big-studio films routinely engage focus groups and other research strategies to predict whether and how a film will resonate with viewers. Even if filmgoers make present-day comparisons through a partisan lens while watching “Lincoln,” for example, the filmmakers are banking on patriotism transcending politics, as viewers encounter one of the country’s most beloved historical figures at the height of his powers and personal charisma.