Zero Dark Thirty Movie: Osama Bin Laden Film is Guided By the White House Official Narrative

I remember exactly where I was and how I felt when Osama bin Laden was killed – almost as clearly as I remember where I was and how I felt on Sept. 11, 2001. 

It was Monday and I was at a bar (for a class project, really). I remember looking up at the greasy TV set and seeing the news headline scroll across the bottom of the screen: “Osama bin Laden dead.” Most importantly, I remember not knowing how to feel. As my booze-schmoozed piers chanted “USA!” “USA!” while pumping their fists, I remember feeling numb, odd. It was clear to me that I didn’t share in the patriotic fever and sense of vengeance and justice that my fellow young Americans did. A year and a half later, I still feel the same. Official state narratives about who the “bad guys” are and why we must go to war haven’t set right with me since some oh-so-important WMD’s stood me up. Fool me once. But whereas President Bush had mainstream broadcast media blowing his trumpet, President Obama, in addition, has Hollywood.  

Hurt Locker dream team director Kathryn Bigelow and screenwriter Mark Boal are collaborating on a new film about the assasination of Osama bin Laden titled Zero Dark Thirty. The action-packed political thriller is set to hit theaters Dec. 19 and boasts big-name stars like Jessica Chastain and The Sopranos’ James Gandolfini. But the film’s shiny celebs pale in comparison to its powerful political connections.

A Freedom of Information request filed by the watchdog “conservative, non-partisan educational foundation” Judicial Watch shows both Bigelow and Boal worked closely with the Department of Defense and CIA in sculpting the film’s narrative. In a June 13, 2011 e-mail between Under Secretary of Defense for Intelligence Michael Vickers and Assistant Secretary for Public Affairs Douglas Wilson and two other DoD communications staffers, Vickers assured them that, “[DoD] would like to shape the story to prevent any gross inaccuracies, but do not want to make it look like the commanders think it’s okay to talk to the media.” He went on to say that, “For the intelligence case, they are basically using the WH-approved talking points we used the night of the operation.”

And according to a July 14, 2011 transcript of a meeting between DoD officials and Vickers, the film’s screenwriter Boal said, “I took your guidance and spoke to the [White House] and had a good meeting with Brennan and McDonough and I plan to follow up with them; and they were forward leaning and interested in sharing their point of view; command and control; so that was great, thank you.”

But the filmmakers do more than share the White House’s POV – they embrace it. Zero Dark Thirty, whose secret working title was the unsettling For God and Country, is being billed as "the story of history's greatest manhunt for the world's most dangerous man.” It’s a story that reinforces the official narrative surrounding the killing of Osama bin Laden while mythologizing Seal Team Six, CIA and DOD officials. It is, in the most basic sense, political propaganda. Perhaps the filmmakers should have taken into consideration the sovereignty of a nation that was violated on May 2, 2011 and continues to be to this day. Perhaps they should have interviewed Osama bin Laden’s daughter who witnessed a first-hand account of her father’s death. Perhaps they should have questioned the murky official narrative.


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Jessica Schreindl

Jessica Schreindl is a TV producer in Seattle, Washington. She graduated with her M.A. from Syracuse University where she studied film history and documentary filmmaking. Born and raised in the great Northwest, she has worn the hat of a journalist, photographer and bartender. Her favorite topics to write about are foreign policy, feminism, gender inequality, corporate power, human rights and civil liberties.

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