'Seal Team Six' celebrates Obama, suffers sins of docudrama

TV messes with our history as it mixes fact and fiction on election eve

  • President Obama at 2011 White House Correspondents Dinner - a moment featured in "Seal Team Six" docudrama Sunday on the National Geographic Channel.
President Obama at 2011 White House Correspondents Dinner… (Chris Kleponis/AFP/Getty…)
November 05, 2012|By David Zurawik | The Baltimore Sun

There is no TV genre more problematic than docudrama. And Sunday's premiere of "SEAL Team Six," which claims to be the true, inside story of the mission to kill Osama bin Laden, is as problematic as they come.

The core issues all grow from the docudramatist's desire to have it both ways in mixing fact and fiction. The goal is to have the credibility of the documentary as well as the poetic license to invent and collapse facts and details in the name of the most compelling storytelling.

Changing the historical record -- and in some cases, possibly making it up altogether -- is bad enough. But when you play that narrative game on the presidential level on the eve of an election, you are messing not just with our shared sense of a national past, but also with the political system by which we fill our highest office.

Those are the stakes with "SEAL Team Six: The Raid on Osama bin Laden," which debuts at 8 Sunday night on the National Geographic Channel.

Purely as entertainment, it's not a production worth getting excited about. The writing is bare-bones, and the performances are mostly one-dimensional. It wants to be "Mission Impossible" meets "Homeland." Forget it: There is no Claire Danes or Damian Lewis in this production.

But as a Hollywood creation claiming to be the true account of an epic moment in our national life -- and doing that on a TV channel that reaches 84 million homes on the eve of a national election -- it demands our full attention.

"SEAL Team Six" feels more like propaganda at times than it does prime-time entertainment. Yet it will still leave you with a feel-good surge, if not a lump in your throat, at the end when the team returns from its mission. And that visceral response makes you want to believe even more in the heroic actions you just witnessed. One of those heroes is President Barack Obama.

Here's the docudrama disclaimer from the filmmakers: "While some aspects of the characterizations have been dramatized for creative reasons, the core story is an accurate portrayal of the event that ended one of the longest manhunts in American history."

How do we know what's "dramatized" and what's an "accurate portrayal"? We don't.

And the filmmakers give us no help. In fact, they purposefully blur the lines.

"Mixing interviews with flashbacks, simulated surveillance video, archival footage and filmed narrative, the film stitches together a taut, no-holds-barred account that builds step-by-tension-filled-step," the press materials say.

If combining "simulated surveillance videos" with "archival footage" and fake interviews sounds like a hopeless mash-up, that's because it is. And here's how it looks on the screen.

The film begins with an actor (Anson Mount) talking to the camera, documentary-style. Text identifies him as "Cherry -- SEAL Team Six."

"What do you want me talk about?" he asks. "I mean, we trained like we trained for any other mission. They're all serious."

The screen then fills with actors playing the other members of SEAL Team Six strapping on their gear.

And then actress Kathleen Robertson appears, identified as "Vivian Hollins -- CIA Counterterrorism Unit."

"As it happened, the president that night was due to give a speech -- the White House Correspondents' Dinner, a room full of journalists," she says. "Fact is, that only a handful of his aides knew that just before the event, the president had authorized the raid."

And with that, we cut from images of the make-believe SEALs locking and loading, to the real president addressing Donald Trump, Bill O'Reilly and a room full of journalists some 18 hours before the death of bin Laden. The archival footage simultaneously shows the president at the podium and his larger-than-life image on the big screen in the room.

Make no mistake: This is the very image of a leader -- a man totally in control who can joke and smile with his audience of journalists even as he holds the terrible knowledge of the mission that he just launched.

And we are not even one minute into the 90-minute film. By the time we get to the image of a weary president standing alone, lost in thought, his face steeped in concern as he awaits word, we have moved into the realm of hagiography. This is director John Stockwell depicting Obama as the biographer Parson Weems did George Washington with the story of the cherry tree.

Stockwell responds to such criticism in a statement sent with the DVD of the film.

"Here's what I can tell you: The origins of 'SEAL Team Six' were not political. ... When Harvey Weinstein came into the edit room to look at the very early, very rough cut with me, he was entirely concerned with the veracity and honesty of the depictions of the military and intelligence community. He brought in an archivist and documentary producer to help us get extraordinary access to news and archival footage that gave the movie context and helped root it in reality. We never discussed politics."

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