Inside Hollywood’s Race for an Osama bin Laden Movie
The daring Navy SEALs operation that resulted in the death of Osama bin Laden has all the trappings of a Hollywood movie: the long, frustrating intelligence search that led to bin Laden's hideout in Abbottabad, Pakistan; the helicopter assault during which a team of operatives hit the compound; the president and his advisers watching tensely from the White House's Situation Room; the jubilant, flag-waving crowds that took to the streets following the announcement May 1 of bin Laden's death.
But how quickly can Hollywood assemble its own troops?
If history is any guide, TV will have the advantage over film. Merely six months after the equally daring Israeli raid on a hijacked airliner in Entebbe, Uganda, on July 4, 1976, ABC aired a TV movie, Victory at Entebbe, starring Richard Dreyfuss, and NBC chimed in the following month with Raid on Entebbe, with Peter Finch and Charles Bronson.
"My gut tells me there will be competing projects, probably one in the network space and certainly one or two in the Showtime/HBO space, and they will revolve around the mission and the Navy SEALs," says a high-level television agent who is already hearing talk about projects coming together.
But this time around, moviemakers might have the edge. Director Kathryn Bigelow and screenwriter Mark Boal, the team behind best picture Oscar winner The Hurt Locker, were already assembling a movie about U.S. forces' pursuit of bin Laden when the successful mission took place.
Sources close to Boal say he had begun work on the project about six months ago when Triple Frontier, a South America-set project he was working on with Bigelow, was put on hold. While in Afghanistan researching a story about Army "kill teams" targeting civilians, which Rolling Stone published in March, Boal — through his extensive military contacts — began picking up chatter that the hunt for bin Laden had been reactivated. Although some years back he'd optioned a book titled Kill Bin Laden, which recounted the Delta Force mission in Tora Bora, Boal's new screenplay doesn't carry that title and is based on his most recent investigations, according to a source familiar with the project.
While the screenplay is still incomplete, Bigelow and Boal have already lined up financing from Megan Ellison's Annapurna Productions and have begun talking to actors like Joel Edgerton (Animal Kingdom), aiming for a late-summer start date.
Now, they also have a new ending, and it's expected that the filmmakers will turn the bin Laden raid into the movie's climactic third act. "It's going to be an action film about the tactical victory that this pursuit resulted in — sort of a good-news Black Hawk Down," the source predicts. That probably means increasing the budget — originally in the $20 million to $25 million range — to mount a bigger action sequence, but that shouldn't represent much of a risk, because studios are already circling the project.
Howard E. Wasdin, co-author of the new book SEAL Team Six: Memoirs of an Elite Navy SEAL Sniper, is also a beneficiary of the sudden turn of events. St. Martin's, his publisher, is rushing to get the book, which had been set for a May 24 publication, into stores earlier than that. Scott Miller of the Trident Media Group, which reps Wasdin, says he's "already gotten calls" from studios and scouts, and CAA is now repping movie rights.
TV could still beat the others to the punch, though.
"Based on other big events that have been turned into TV movies or limited series, I think we are going to see a story similar to what HBO did with its tale of the 2000 election, Recount," an agency source says.
One difficulty is that the SEALs are notoriously secretive, but producers can get around that by mixing known fact with informed fiction, resulting in a fictitious story married to a version of the events known to have happened.
"Several writers in the film space and in the movie-of-the-week space are trying to come up with an angle in," another agent says.
The agent predicts any TV projects quickly put together will air "probably no later than Christmastime. They will roll it into an event. Maybe February, if it's a network."
Meanwhile, networks have begun what will likely be a barrage of bin Laden. National Geographic has scheduled a week of bin Laden-related programming beginning May 9. And Discovery on May 15 will air an hourlong documentary, Bin Laden Dead, which promises a second-by-second account of the kill mission.