Why the partisan origins of National Geographic Channel's Seal Team Six movie doesn't matter
There’s no getting around a crucial fact about National Geographic Channel’s new fictional film, Seal Team Six: the Raid on Osama bin Laden.
It’s a highly complimentary movie, backed by vocal President Obama supporter Harvey Weinstein, dramatizing one of the biggest achievements of the Democratic president’s administration, airing days before a razor-thin election.
Seal Team Six tries sidestepping that inconvenient truth by focusing on the unnamed strike team members and intelligence analysts who figured out that bin Laden was hiding at a sprawling compound in Pakistan, developing a risky plan to storm the facility and take him out.
Well-known government officials are shown mostly in real news footage or photos, though an actor plays the voice of then-CIA director Leon Panetta, who was sworn in as Defense Secretary two months after the raid. Kathleen Robertson (Starz’s Boss) plays Vivian Hollins, the analyst known for doggedly pursuing rumors about bin Laden until she cobbled together enough evidence to push the White House into OK-ing a strike.
“Being obsessed with a target is like having a one-way affair,” she says in one of many confessional interview scenes sprinkled through the movie. “It’s secret and you can’t stop thinking about him and you’re always alone. The only question is how it will end.”
Unfortunately, that question has been answered for most everyone who will see Seal Team Six; even many of the details about the operation had already been divulged by “Mark Owen,” a member of the real team who wrote a book under a pseudonym and talked to CBS’ 60 Minutes.
So this film – rushed to TV before Zero Dark Thirty, another movie for theaters about the raid from Hurt Locker director Kathryn Bigelow – is instead mired in cliches about the heroism of U.S. soldiers and the frustration of intelligence gathering.
Think of other films about events where the ending is already known, epics such as The Perfect Storm or Schindler’s List, and their appeal comes from plunging the audience into a story with complex characters and previously unknown details, spiced with spectacle and jaw-dropping visuals.
Seal Team Six offers almost none of that, succeeding best when showing how Pakistani “assets” on the ground used technology and courage to gather information on bin Laden’s compound. Given how effectively the cost of war has been hidden from the public, footage showing dangerous raids and sacrifices endured by soldiers also resonates.
This film might make a bigger impression if Showtime hadn’t created Homeland, a textured story terrorism featuring a bipolar CIA analyst. It asks important questions about the cost of America’s war on terror with the freedom a fictional framework provides.
But Homeland highlights the tedium and false starts of intelligence work, something a 90-minute film can’t possibly manage. After seeing the series, this film’s rushed collage of efforts feels more like a low-budget Mission Impossible movie.
Political conservatives will hate seeing the victory lap allowed the administration in this film, which features the president’s speech to the nation after bin Laden’s death and much earlier clips of then-GOP candidate John McCain criticizing Obama's stance on terrorism during the 2008 campaign.
But I mourn the resources wasted on a simplistic film which strands great character actors – including Anson Mount (Hell on Wheels) as a no-nonsense SEAL – in cookie-cutter roles.
Fear not; this film won’t change anybody’s vote. But I hope it will convince other filmmakers that you need more than jingoistic pandering to pro-America sentiment to turn one of the best-known manhunts in history into a compelling movie.