Controversy arose when the National Geographic Channel announced that it will premiere a film about the successful military raid that killed Osama bin Laden two days before the presidential election, but anyone who walks away thinking that SEAL Team Six: The Raid on Osama bin Laden is a political piece has blinders on.
From the first 15 minutes — which include an intense, violent firefight — it's clear that the film's purpose is to provide entertainment, not to advance a political agenda. President Barack Obama is merely a background player (albeit an obviously necessary one), while the real focus is on the Navy SEALs and CIA officials who planned and executed the operation. Any influence the movie — the network's first feature film based on true events — will have on undecided voters is dubious at best.
Though actors portray the key players, the film is shot documentary-style (mixed with archival news footage and photos), beginning with a dramatization of the interrogation of a prisoner at Guantanamo Bay that eventually led intelligence officials to the compound at Abbottabad, Pakistan, where bin Laden was hiding.
At a National Security meeting on April 28, 2011, Vice President Joe Biden and Defense Secretary Robert Gates advised President Obama against the raid, code-named "Operation Neptune's Spear," while Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and CIA Director Leon Panetta were in favor of it. (Director John Stockwell, for the record, calls Obama's call to give the go-ahead a "terrible political decision." "The risk/reward ratio was not weighted in his favor," the director said. "Like a coach who makes the call to go for it on fourth down, it's only a 'gutsy' call when it works. When it doesn't, you lose your job.")
Shot in India ("a country which didn't like being used as a stand-in for their hated enemy," according to Stockwell), as well as a working prison in New Mexico, the film understandably contains a number of Hollywood embellishments to ensure it's made-for-TV entertainment. But such aspects as military maneuvers and training procedures were submitted for approval to a team of experts, including a retired Navy SEAL, a top CIA operative and a bin Laden historian.
After deftly outlining the process by which the CIA gathered evidence that bin Laden was hiding in the compound — a two-man surveillance team renting a house across from the property plays a key role — Stockwell achieves his two greatest accomplishments in the film. First, he manages to both humanize the SEALs by showing footage of them training and talking to their loved ones back home — and suspecting that the mission they're training for is targeting bin Laden, but not knowing for sure and realizing that they wouldn't be able to tell anyone even if it were.
Secondly, Stockwell manages to make the middle-of-the-night raid sequence a real nail-biter, even though everyone knows the outcome. Still, when one of the military helicopters nearly crashes outside the compound, you might find yourself wondering if maybe the news reports got it wrong after all. That narrowly-avoided disaster, according to the film, is what prompted the famous photo of Obama, Clinton and other officials looking horrified as they watched from the Situation Room in the White House.
The team members depicted are identified only by their code names — Stunner, Mule, Trench and the like — in order to preserve anonymity for the real men involved in the top-secret operation. Stockwell makes two of them the main players of the film: "surfer boy" team leader Stunner (Cam Gigandet) and Cherry (Anson Mount), a self-described "hot-headed redneck."
On the other end of things, Boss' Kathleen Robertson gives an excellent performance as CIA analyst Vivian Hollins, whose quest to find bin Laden borders on a physical need. "Being obsessed with the target is like having a one-way affair," she says at one point. "It's secret and you can't stop thinking about him, but you're always alone."
Though the SEALs are the real heroes of the film, it's the governmental, behind-the-scenes sequences that are the most fascinating parts of SEAL Team Six. Essentially three options were on the table: planning a joint attack with the Pakistani government, which some believe may have actually been abetting bin Laden; leveling the compound, which carried the risk of never knowing for sure whether bin Laden was inside, not to mention collateral damage; or executing a helicopter attack with only a 40 to 60 percent certainty that bin Laden was in the compound.
Wisely, rather than having an actor credited as bin Laden, Stockwell never shows the Al Qaeda leader's face as he's executed, but rather depicts him as just a shadowy, tall figure in one of the rooms of the compound. The actual killing is fairly muted, with the more eye-popping aspect of the raid being the team's success in rescuing the several women and children who were also there.
Produced by The Hurt Locker's Nicolas Chartier, SEAL Team Six provides a taut, entertaining look at one of the most important historical events in recent U.S. history — and viewers, regardless of political leanings, will agree that it has a satisfying ending.
SEAL Team Six: The Raid on Osama bin Laden premieres Sunday at 8/7c on the National Geographic Channel. It will be available on Netflix Monday.