Cannes 2012: An Osama bin Laden battle brews by the beach

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CANNES, France--The news today that Harvey Weinstein was poised to buy an assassination-of-Osama-bin-Laden movie called “Code Name Geronimo” brought a jolt of politics to the just-opened Cannes Film Festival, where the deal was being negotiated.

It also sets up one of the most epic film-meets-politics moments in a long time--not to mention a potential catfight with Sony Pictures. That studio of course has its own Bin Laden movie, titled “Zero Dark Thirty” and directed by “The Hurt Locker” helmer Kathryn Bigelow,” due before the end of the year.

Weinstein has basically closed the rights deal for the independently made ‘Geronimo,’ according to a person familiar with the negotiations, and is talking as though he’s pretty much decided to release the movie in late September or October. That’s a crucial period because it of course comes before Americans head to the polls--and while voters and talking-heads will be debating just how much credit President Obama deserves for the killing. The election could affect the film, and the film could certainly affect the election.

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(Already ‘Dark’ has been the subject of scrutiny from congressional Republicans over whether the script benefited from classified information. It remains to be seen whether another movie, this one right before the election--and from a noted Hollywood liberal, no less--spurs its own backlash.)

In releasing the movie during the pre-election period, Weinstein would take a page from his own playbook. He famously pulled a similar move in bringing out Michael Moore’s “Farenheit 9/11' the summer before the Bush-Kerry contest in 2004. It didn’t sway the results for the Democrats, though it certainly paid off for the Weinsteins at the box office.

“Geronimo” is directed by John Stockwell, the actor turned-director of water-themed commercial pictures such as “Dark Tide” and “Blue Crush” as well as the Kirsten Dunst romance “Crazy/Beautiful.” It stars Cam Gigandet, baddie from the first “Twilight,” as a key member of the team that assassinated the Al Qaeda leader.

Stockwell’s new movie, shot this winter and spring, isn’t finished — a sales trailer and limited additional footage is what’s being shown to Weinstein and international distributors — so anyone buying it must really want a Bin Laden movie.

After talking to those here on the Croisette with knowledge of the production, here’s what we do know about the film.

The movie centers on three groups: the CIA, the U.S. military leadership and the SEALs who went on the risky mission. It takes its best shot at theorizing what final piece of intelligence tipped the decision for Obama to send in the SEALs. (No one has proved what exactly prompted him to pull the trigger on the operation.) There’s no footage of Obama, actual or actorly, in the current cut of the film, though that may change. It doesn’t take a heavily partisan position, though it does shine a light on an event that the administration touts as a major success. It’s basically an indie action movie, and it’s more modest in budget and scope than ‘Zero Dark Thirty.’

So what would an October date for ‘Geronimo’ do to Sony? It would certainly put the screws to the studio, which pointedly decided not release “Zero Dark Thirty” before the election, presumably out of fear of politicizing the film.

Sony is now set to release its film Dec. 19, and while a spokesman said it had no plans of moving off that date, even a “Geronimo’ success could poison the well for another Bin Laden movie two months later. This isn’t two wildly different takes on Snow White, after all; it’s a dramatization of the same event.

Private grumbling will no doubt come from both sides about which version stands a better chance at the box office.

Weinstein executives and the film’s producers will point out that they will have first-mover advantage. Sony will say that with Bigelow and fellow Oscar winner/screenwriter Mark Boal, they have the stronger pedigree. (Their movie, incidentally, stars Joel Edgerton and Mark Strong.)

Harvey Weinstein must also contend with his own very crowded calendar. With new movies from Quentin Tarantino, David O. Russell, Andrew Dominik and others,Weinstein already has perhaps the most high-profile fall slate since breaking away from Disney seven years ago.

And if the chess match wasn’t complicated enough, “Geronimo’ comes from financier-producer Voltage Pictures, which previously worked with Bigelow and Boal on ‘The Hurt Locker. (We’re guessing that didn’t all end well--especially after campaigning from the Voltage chief got him banned from the Oscars.)

And finally, there’s this: One of the reasons Weinstein’s fall slate is so crowded is that it’s populated by a couple of movies from big-game financier Megan Ellison, with whom he’s gone into business. And what other picture did Ellison produce for the fall? Sony’s Bin Laden movie.

State Department politics don’t get this complicated.


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How should Hollywood react to the killing of Osama bin Laden?

--Steven Zeitchik