Saturday Matinee: SEAL Team Six

Seal Team Six 01SEAL Team Six: The Raid on Osama bin Laden is a quickie made-for-TV movie, on DVD in the stores now and receiving a publicity blitz, which you could charitably say is meant to capitalize on the much larger publicity wave the much costlier theatrical release Zero Dark Thirty is currently riding. (If you were more cynical than charitable, you could say it is meant to deceive low-information DVD buyers. But let’s give the filmmakers the benefit of the doubt, as we have much to criticize them for without lapsing into low cynicism).

The movie was made in a rush, to quickly exploit public interest in the death of bin Laden. The filmmakers say they also meant to honor the men and women of the military and intelligence services. Finally, they don’t say this, but they clearly intended to honor the President and promote his reelection. They succeed mostly in the first and third objectives, and they make an effort on the second, which is appreciated.

The original name, Code Name Geronimo, was dumped some time during production. There’s art with that title on the net if you look for it.

seal-team-six09Despite a week or ten days of actors’ boot camp, which included live-firing weapons, most of the actors don’t look or sell their parts very well. There are exceptions — the guy who plays the never named Lieutenant Commander springs to mind — but most of these guys look like Actors Playing SEALS. The “combat action” is weak, and it’s especially weak in a scene that is supposed to be in Afghanistan on a previous deployment.

Sometimes they get details just right — team members carrying a tourniquet on their vests. Sometimes they get them wrong — nerf vests, and in one scene, an actor or extra is carrying a bulky equipment bag… under his arm, because it’s clearly packed with styrofoam packing noodles or some other prop-room substitute for war gear. That was just carelessness.

The script includes a scene we never would have believed had not a SEAL acquaintance assured us that it does happen — an officer and a senior petty officer working out a disagreement with a physical fight. That’s pretty foreign to our Army Special Forces way of doing things. (Normal disagreements are worked out by the team, and even a galactically stupid order by a galactically unpopular officer is usually followed, if it’s not life-threatening. Individual NCOs who can’t handle a particular officer find a new place to excel, usually on another team in the same company; individual officers who cannot establish bonds of mutual trust and respect with their teams are normally advised in a closed-doors meeting by the NCO leadership or the team as a whole to go pursue their careers elsewhere. In egregious cases, they get a frank explanation of what “or else” means in this environment).

There are three interlocking threads to the story: the individual SEAL element’s preparation and execution of the mission; the tracking of bin Laden through his courier “Ahmed al-Kuwaiti” by CIA analysts; and the actions on the ground of CIA officers. As in Zero Dark Thirty, a character based on a particular (and self-promoting) CIA analyst, stands in for all the intelligence community. Two CIA officers stand in for all the members of the clandestine service who have pursued bin Laden on-the-ground relentlessly, tracking tens of thousands of “sightings” which turned out to be nothing — and a few that turned out to be the actual target.

seal-team-six-image04The script follows, mostly, the facts as released by the White House. These facts have been disputed, including by SEALS that were on the mission, particularly “Mark Owen” in his book, No Easy Day.  But it is one clear coherent story of the raid, and the producers can’t really be faulted for sticking to it.

One place where they went out of the way to mess up was the story of the Pakistani doctor who tried to get a blood sample from the kids in the compound, to determine if they were bin Laden’s children. The story is told in a few minutes, without ever naming Dr Shakeel Afridi, a Pashtun who risked his life for the success of our mission, and who has paid terribly for it. He was abandoned by the US and the CIA, and White House kibitzers leaked his story to the media and to the Hollywood teams making both movies. The Pakistani ISI quickly grabbed him, sentenced him to 33 years in prison, and then conducted the formality of a trial, with the peculiarly Pakistani feature of lawyers who cannot see or talk to their client. Dr Afridi has been tortured in prison, and guards who tried to help him have gotten the same treatment. None of this is in the movie. You never find out what happened to the guy. Unless you google his name, or read our review.

One way a short script is padded to film length is by interposed scenes “interviewing” the characters, in which they mostly talk about their feelings. These scenes don’t add much except time to the film, and you get a definite sense that the coach (Director John Stockwell) is running out the clock here.

The weapons are not particularly accurately portrayed. They are standard Hollywood rental stuff, AKs for the bad guys and AR-15s for the good guys, and a lot of what we think of as “standard effects-reel gun sounds” are dubbed in. There’s a lot more firing in long automatic bursts than would actually happen. The range scenes aren’t atrocious, although they don’t do a good job of showing a high training state or showing training progression — just shooting at a few meters’ distance against paper targets.

Some of the “night” scenes have that horribly fake look, shot in the daytime with a filter, what cinematographers call “day for night”. C’mon guys… if you can’t fake it, make it.

The political scenes feel grafted on, as if they were superimposed on the shooting script late in production or even in post. They not only included material meant to boost the President, but stuff to bash his election opponent. If you’re one of his partisans, you might actually like this, but there’s too much of his singsong, left-teleprompter right-teleprompter delivery of political speeches. A sound bite would have done it, we don’t need a whole hunk of official propaganda footage of The Great Man speaking orating. Contra the film, it wasn’t a braver or riskier decision to be the guy saying “yes” or “no” than to be the guy actually kicking the door.

The film was mostly shot in New Mexico, looking to save money versus overpriced California. The terrain of neither closely resembles Afghanistan or Pakistan. The scenes of the surveillance were shot in India with Indian actors, and these, in fact, have some of the best verisimilitude of the whole thing, despite there being a few Indian “tells” like license plates. (The Indian actors are really good, more so than their American counterparts in this. Maybe Bollywood should have made the whole movie).

Bottom line: this is another one not to spend real money on. Netflix queue, OK, if you’re out of other ideas; but not the DVD. At least not until it’s in the $5 bin. Maybe it’s not completely dreadful, but it’s not very good. It was a bit depressing to watch the making-of extra on the DVD and hear how serious the cast and crew were, and how hard they were trying. With the amount of effort they put in, they should certainly have achieved better. Even with the budget and the rush to airtime, their results can’t be excused: better films have been made for less.