Believe it or not, you’re actually going to have more than one option this week when it comes to movies taking on the hunt for and killing of Osama Bin Laden. Yes, there’s Kathryn Bigelow‘s awards season favorite, "Zero Dark Thirty," going into wide release on Friday. But hitting DVD and Blu-ray yesterday was The Weinstein Company‘s much lower budget "Seal Team Six: The Raid On Osama Bin Laden."
The latter movie brings with it an unlikely group of players. Directed by John Stockwell ("Tursistas," "Into The Blue," "Crazy/Beautiful"), its biggest names are Cam Gigandet and Xzibit, and unlike Bigelow’s two-and-a-half-hour epic, it runs a mere ninety minutes. The picture earned a tiny bit of press and controversy last fall when it was reported that the filmmakers were tweaking the movie to better position President Barack Obama, an argument not helped by the decision to air ‘Team Six’ on the National Geographic Channel on November 4th, two days before the election. And while it was cut for the TV broadcast, select clips of Mitt Romney and John McCain opposing the hunt for the terrorist leader remain in the home video version. It’s a lone partisan moment in an otherwise straight-laced effort.
And while the budgets and scope between "Zero Dark Thirty" and "Seal Team Six" are wildly different, they also overlap in several key areas. Given that both movies will be widely available this week, we thought it would be interesting to compare and contrast the two. But screenwriter Kendall Lampkin, who penned Stockwell’s flick, perhaps sums up the key difference best. "I tried to make a story that would hold up even if the headlines changed," he said in a "Seal Team Six" special feature. "It’s not about details, it’s about people. So that, no matter how much the details change on the news, we don’t have to keep changing the script."
Below, we’ll get into how both movies approach torture, 9/11 and the final raid on the compound in Abbotabad. And while spoilers for a recent historical event seem a bit silly, if you’re concerned, yes there will be spoilers.
Maya & Vivian: Jessica Chastain Vs. Kathleen Robertson
One of the most important elements that both movies present as crucial to the operation to find Bin Laden is the tenacity of a determined CIA agent. Named Maya in Bigelow’s movie, and Vivian in Stockwell’s picture, whoever she is in real life, the agent must be flattered to have beautiful women Jessica Chastain and Kathleen Robertson ("Boss," "Beverly Hills 90210") portraying her. Moreover, she pretty much gets the same characterization in each film.
"We should bomb the fuck out of it," Vivian declares when options are discussed about how to approach the Bin Laden compound. "I’m gonna smoke everyone in this op," Maya says after losing a friend and colleague in a suicide bombing. "Then I’m going to kill Bin Laden." In short, both are as ruthless in their dedication to gathering evidence and making a case as they are passionate about seeing the Al Qaeda leader pay for his crimes. Vivian is friends with someone who had a family in one of the World Trade Center towers, while Maya’s pursuit seems to be more obsessive, with a personal stake that only develops later on. ("I believe I was spared so I could finish the job," Maya declares). But either way, whoever this agent was, she gets represented as an unwavering fighter who battles the chain of command in order to see the final objective through.
The Hunt: 10 Years Vs. 18 Months
As we said in the opening, one movie sprawls over two and a half hours, while the other clocks in at just over half that time, so the scope of each, obviously, is different. In Bigelow’s picture, at least one-third to half the film is spent detailing the search for Abu Ahmed al-Kuwaiti, Bin Laden’s trusted courier and right-hand man. He’s the link to finding the feared leader, and "Zero Dark Thirty" shows the work that went into verifying his identity, chasing leads and eventually tracking him down. It’s an opportunity for audiences to see just how complex and clinical that kind of work is, and it’s riveting stuff.
However, Stockwell’s film doesn’t have that luxury of time or budget, and as the screenwriter revealed, they couldn’t get too fixated on the nitty gritty details. So "Seal Team Six" opens with a pre-credit sequence in 2002, in which a detainee at Guantanamo Bay offers up some intel. We then fast forward to 18 months away from May 1, 2011, with operations in full swing in Pakistan, and Vivian making the case to her superiors that indeed, Osama Bin Laden is alive and in the compound in Abbatobad. Basically, "Zero Dark Thirty" fills in that huge gap of time, when many other worldwide terrorist incidents continued the intense pressure to bring down Bin Laden. Meanwhile, "Seal Team Six" most concerns itself with the SEAL team, and how they trained and bonded for the operation.
9/11: Subtle Or Showy
Even more than ten years after September 1, 2001, a day that forever changed the face of the country, portraying what happened on the big screen has been tricky. There is no doubt that the World Trade Center towers coming down, along with the downed plane smashing into the Pentagon, dramatically refocused military and intelligence efforts. But it was a day that also changed the lives of ordinary Americans, who suddenly realized that things that seemed to happen only in Other Places, could very well strike at home.
Bigelow gracefully opens "Zero Dark Thirty" on a black screen, with only various actual audio from the day playing, perhaps most notably, one panicked voice of a woman in one of the towers, who comes to the realization with a 911 operator listening on the line, that she’s going to die. It’s heartbreaking, raw-nerved stuff that immediately conveys how monumental historically, emotionally and personally 9/11 was for everyone. Stockwell isn’t bothered by such nuance, and "Seal Team Six" is more than happy to haul out footage of the planes slamming into each tower, in a pretty big swipe at the heartstrings that mostly feels cheap, easy and exploitative.
Identifying Bin Laden: Getting The Facts Right
What both films get right is that right up until the moment the Navy SEALs were in the building facing down Osama Bin Laden with the business end of a military weapon, no one knew for sure if he was actually there. He never left the compound, the windows of the building were blacked out, and when he did go out for fresh air, it was in an orchard of grapes, with the leaves so thick above his head that satellite photos couldn’t identify him. Not that the CIA didn’t try their best to get a positive ID, but what "Seal Team Six" puts forth as the methods used to identify Bin Laden, "Zero Dark Thirty" refutes.
First off, Stockwell’s film puts forward the narrative that two agents managed to snag an apartment within perfect binocular and telescope distance from the compound, with an unobscured view. And from there, they gathered countless footage and recordings of Bin Laden’s little fortress. However, they needed to make sure they had the right man, so "Seal Team Six" explores the CIA’s fake vaccination plan, in which undercover operatives were let onto the compound to inoculate everyone living there, in the hopes that a strain of Bin Laden DNA would be found on the needles from one of his children, proving his presence.
However, in "Zero Dark Thirty," screenwriter Mark Boal and Bigelow reveal that the vaccination plan, while real, didn’t work, and moreover, there were no agents taking video and photos of the Abbotabad house.They were mostly working off satellite images, using shadows of walls and people, along with blurry video from way up above, to determine the heights, gender, ages and more of the people with Bin Laden. As for the big guy himself, even as the mission launched, opinions were wildly varied among intelligence officials as to whether or not he would be found.
Torture: Did They Or Didn’t They?
Well, that’s the million-dollar question, isn’t it? As you read above, "Seal Team Six" begins with a Guantanamo Bay detainee giving up Abu Ahmed al-Kuwaiti. But why does he do it? Because he’s threatened with being shipped to Saudi Arabia, so their intelligence community can interrogate him. The detainee is warned that not only will the flesh be ripped from his skin in Saudi Arabia’s "state of the art" torture facilities, his wife and children will be brought in too. Essentially, the implication is made that if the United States does torture or treat their prisoners harshly, that’s nothing compared to what some of their allies might do.
Stockwell defends this decision in a piece in the Huffington Post where he writes: "There is certainly an argument to be made that torture played a role in finding OBL but we chose to use the ‘threat’ of being sent to Saudi Arabia and facing their ‘torture chambers’ then depicting torture itself as useful in obtaining any credible information. Like so many other things in this mission, this argument will never be fully resolved, but it seemed more interesting to see the critical information obtained by a carrot then a stick. I’m confident torture was used many times during our war on terror but I’m also fairly certain it resulted in as much false information as real, actionable intelligence."
However, that final sentiment in Stockwell’s quote is exactly what Bigelow and Boal achieve despite the continued "pro-torture" card that keeps being thrown at their film. Yes, "Zero Dark Thirty" presents some very tough scenes in which detainees are waterboarded, hung from their wrists, handcuffed to steel desks, put in a wooden box, deprived of sleep and more. But what most people seem to be missing is that, for the most part, those tactics don’t work in their movie. Ammar, the source who endures the most punishment we see, gives up al-Kuwaiti not when he’s in shackles, but after, when he’s plyed with food, fresh air and cigarettes. And while later in the picture another detainee gives up intel to avoid further enhanced interrogation techniques, the movie is asking a larger question.
"Zero Dark Thirty" forces audiences to consider what is going on (or went on) at the CIA black sites, and face the uneasy relationship one might have with torture, but it does so without coming down on either side. And it’s a smart play, because while one may vehemently and morally object to torture, one also has to acknowledge that while it’s largely been proven to be ineffective, in some instances it did help the CIA on their mission. Reconciling that is uncomfortable, and Bigelow’s film bravely leaves you in that space. For investigations to be launched asking if the CIA misled the filmmakers in an effort to pursue their own agenda, or to stick your head in the sand and pretend there was no torture and no intelligence gathered from such techniques, is to simply ignore history. And to posit that the movie is "pro-torture" is simply engaging "Zero Dark Thirty" on the most facile level possible.
The Raid: Two Variations On A Shootout
Well, here’s an instance where "Seal Team Six" has a slight leg up on "Zero Dark Thirty." While Bigelow’s film doesn’t ignore the extraordinary length of time between the discovery of Bin Laden’s hideout and the Navy SEALs being ordered to do the job, it pretty much skips over their training period. As many accounts have illustrated, it was at the end of March 2011 that plans started being put together for a helicopter raid, and the SEALs trained extensively on a replica compound. Stockwell’s film includes this, while Bigelow’s leaves it out.
And while both films underscore the risk involved, "Seal Team Six" emphasizes that if even one Navy SEAL was lost in the mission, it would potentially be perceived as a failure (particularly if the target wasn’t killed or captured). However, when it comes to how it played out on the ground, once again the restrained hand of Bigelow comes out on top. Stockwell presents the raid on the compound almost like the Alamo, with the team going in guns blazing — for a covert operation, there’s barely any silence. This is the rootin’-est, tootin’-est killing of Bin Laden ever (almost video-game-like), and furthermore, the big climax even becomes a bonding moment for two SEALs who weren’t getting along. Aww.
"Zero Dark Thirty" is easily the more realistic depiction. Bigelow’s movie not only spends much longer on the raid, it highlights the uncertainty and danger of every measured step and every silenced shot they took (why Stockwell’s guys didn’t muzzle their guns is puzzling). Even right up until Osama Bin Laden is killed, when the body is on the ground, they momentarily aren’t sure if he’s even the guy. You already know the outcome, but Bigelow’s filmmaking still leaves your pulse racing and palms sweaty.
Still can’t decide which version to watch? Let us put it this way: one movie is about Cam Gigandet proving he can lead a team of Navy SEALs. The other is a crackling and intelligent procedural about an effort that spanned the world to find Osama Bin Laden. One movie has Eddie Kaye Thomas from "American Pie," who winds up getting only a couple of lines, because it seems the bulk of his role was left on the cutting room floor. The other features an ensemble of Jessica Chastain, Jennifer Ehle, Mark Strong, James Gandolfini, Kyle Chandler, Joel Edgerton, Jason Clarke, Chris Pratt, Edgar Ramirez, Mark Duplass, Harold Perrineau and more all giving fantastic performances in a dense and knotty story. Choose wisely.
"Seal Team Six: The Raid On Osama Bin Laden" is now on home video. "Zero Dark Thirty" goes wide on Friday.