The Weinstein Company's "SEAL Team Six: The Raid on Osama Bin Laden" premieres on the National Geographic Channel on Sunday, November 4th, marking the first foray into an original scripted film for a network previously associated with nature programming. It's also a new brush with controversy for NatGeo, with the film's timing — two days before the presidential election — leading some to speculate that it was calculated as a last-minute effort to rally more support for President Obama by dramatizing one of his major achievements in office, the killing of the al-Qaeda leader responsible for the September 11th attacks.
Controversy never hurts when it comes to getting press attention, and the Weinsteins haven't been shy about publicizing any ruckus the TV movie has been provoking, calling attention to an item in the New York Post about how NatGeo has upped its security after receiving threats earlier this month. Late yesterday Politico ran an angry response from the film's director, John Stockwell, to a piece that ran in the New York Times a few days earlier. The Times piece focused on the addition of newsreel footage of President Obama to the original cut as well as on the timing of the film, but what Stockwell takes issue with are the following paragraphs:
Beyond the political issues, the film may carry the risk of associating Mr. Obama with any backlash in a Muslim world already inflamed by the YouTube trailer for an insulting film portrayal of its prophet. In September riots erupted in Libya, Egypt and elsewhere as Muslim crowds reacted violently to what they perceived as the unforgivable insults of a scratch production, “The Innocence of Muslims,” some of which was posted on YouTube.
Nothing in “SEAL Team Six” recalls the anti-Muslim tones of that film. But the new film’s portrayals of the jeopardy to Muslim children during the assault on Bin Laden’s compound, and its graphic references to — but not portrayals of — torture in the war on terror may step toward the risk zone.
Stockwell told Politico that insinuation the film could be "incendiary to the Muslim world" because of the scenes featuring kids "is nonsensical and took us all by surprise — as we went to great lengths to highlight the care and the control that the SEALs showed during the chaos of the raid — not to harm any women and children. This film is dedicated to the men and women of the armed forces and intelligence community who sacrifice, for us, everyday. We have tried to portray them accurately and with respect."
Does "SEAL Team Six: The Raid on Osama Bin Laden" actually deserve this much fuss? Having seen the film, I would say that, stripped of the context in which it's being premiered, it's a restrainedly rah-rah dramatization of the events leading up to and taking place during Operation Neptune Spear that jumps back and forth between the SEALs and the CIA and is heavily focused on process.
It's a generally tasteful affair that frames its developments with mock-doc style interviews to the camera and spins what movie-ish dramatic character developments there are from Kathleen Robertson as a bin Laden-obsessed agency analyst vaguely reminiscent of "Homeland" heroine Carrie Mathison and from some friction between SEAL teammates Stunner (Cam Gigandet) and Cherry (Anson Mount).
Other than the fact that the scenes Stockwell and the NYT mention above involve soldiers with guns going into a compound in which children are living, they aren't very inflammatory — they happen after significant discussion about and training to avoid harming innocents, with the language used being, one would guess, considerably milder than what actually tends to get tossed around in active military circles. As a figure, whether on screen in news footage or off it and being discussed, the president is primarily there to represent the decision-making process and the evidence that was required to make the risk of lives and retaliation worth it when reports were only willing to give a 40-60% chance of the man observed in that Pakistan compound being bin Laden.
"We wouldn’t air this if it were propaganda," NatGeo CEO David Lyle told the AP yesterday. And the film does nothing to blatantly exaggerate or aggrandize Obama's role in the events leading up to May 2, 2011 — he doesn't swoop in wearing a bandana and holding an Uzi and take down the al-Qaeda founder himself, he's presented as involved exactly the way the U.S. President would be in this kind of operation.
"SEAL Team Six" is, at heart, a glossy, well-made ripped-from-the-headlines TV movie, and it is exceptional primarily in how quickly it's been turned around and when it's being broadcast. The content itself doesn't feel like a problem — the raid in question did, in fact, happen, and if there's no way of knowing how close the film gets to how events actually unfolded, there's nothing in it that leaps out as outrageously off, either.
When it comes to timing, on the other hand, to act like the date is a coincidence or just a practicality to get it out ahead of the similarly themed and higher profile "Zero Dark Thirty" is awfully coy. Regardless of any calculated intent and how much of a marketing move it might also be, broadcasting the film at the height of election season when all eyes are on the President and his opponent makes it political, even if just as a reminder, a sleek, cinematic rendition of something that happened under the current administration last year. At least there's something romantic in that disputed idea that the film is intended to or could have any impact on voting. Even if it's being argued over, it's nice to see that people still believe a movie holds that much power, whatever platform it's airing on.