SEAL Team Six: The Raid on Osama bin Laden does not present any new theories or understandings of the assassination of the 9/11 mastermind, which occurred only nearly a year-and-a-half ago. The made-for-TV movie embraces the facts we have: Cabinet level debates about going forward with the raid, a female CIA agent devoted to chasing down bin Laden, the helicopter crash the almost stopped the mission in its tracks. And it roams freely into the land of fiction with the known unknowns: the identities of the Navy SEALs who ultimately implemented the mission, their back stories, relationships with one another, and it at least suggests who made that final kill shot.
But it ushers in what will surely be a parade of bin Laden raid fan fiction. Since the historic raid that the administration has not been shy to talk about—"GM is alive and Osama bin Laden is dead," is one of the unofficial Obama-Biden 2012 campaign slogans—nonfiction accounts quickly emerged from the endeavor. Black Hawk Down author Mark Bowden had broad access to the Obama administration for his book The Finish: The Killing of Osama bin Laden. The raid was the perfect close for Peter Bergen's investigation Manhunt: The Ten-Year Search for Bin Laden. One of the mission's SEALs wrote his own blow-by-blow in No Easy Day: The Firsthand Account of the Mission that Killed Osama bin Laden under the pseudonym Mark Owen (a cover later blown by Fox News). Though the White House's and Owen's narratives were largely similar, what few contradictions there cause plenty of speculation. This and future fictionalized re-tellings will get to chose whose account to follow, and there undoubtedly more analyses to come.
SEAL Team Six marks the bin Laden raid's first foray into fiction, or at least "fiction inspired by real events." Even without the aid of White House officials, SEAL Team Six sticks pretty close to the established script.
Though a majority of the film is made up of dramatized recreations of the anonymous SEAL team and CIA agents planning and executing the raid, SEAL Team Six includes news clips, photographs and speeches of Obama and his top advisers talking about the hunt for the terrorist mastermind—some elements added later at the suggestion of executive producer Harvey Weinstein.
The two come together in a faux-documentary format, with the fictional characters giving taped monologues in addition to their reenactments—a hybrid that would have likely sputtered on the big screen but fits just fine on National Geographic's cable channel.
A well known supporter of Democratic causes, Weinstein's involvement in the film brought suggestions of a political agenda from the first preview—with conservative blogs accusing him of trying to influence the presidential election all the way up to the New York Times saying, "It's hard not to see it as an Obama booster." Such a film would unlikely affect any voters' decisions, considering this campaign has largely been about the economy, and Obama's national security record has been tarnished by the recent attacks in Benghazi.
What it does do is bring about a new way of understanding the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks—references which play a noteable role in the film—elevating the bin Laden raid to bookend to an otherwise murky decade in pop culture's grappling with the American war on terror. Plenty of novels, T.V. shows, movies, and music attempted to express the sense of fear, resilience, and ambiguity that marked the decade after 9/11. But on its 10th anniversary, the New York Times's Michiko Kakautani called the best of these attempts "compelling," but, she said, "none were really game-changing."
Neither is SEAL Team Six by any means, but it is a clear and unabashed tribute to America's strength and ultimate, if aspirationally inevitable, victory. Such an outright celebration of U.S. military success as it relates to the 9/11 attacks has been scant. Rather, the war films of the 21st century, like Hurt Locker and Green Zone, and television shows like Homeland cast a far more blurry view on heroes and villains in the war on terror.
Though the killing of Osama bin Laden does not lessen the pain of the thousands of lives he took, and the many more since lost in pursuit of al Qaeda. It lets the heroes be heroes again. SEAL Team Six adds a little depth and color to the anonymous figures who become its characters, but not much. And the film lets its viewers feel unambiguously good about their country again. After the success of the mission, Vivian, SEAL Team Six's star CIA agent, tells her faux- documentarians, "There aren't many moments in life when you get to realize that everything you sacrificed for a goal was worth it." SEAL Team Six, and in meta-sense, the bin Laden raid, allows its war-weary audience to walk away with that confidence.
Next in line is Zero Dark Thirty, directed and produced by Hurt Locker's Kathryn Bigelow. Time will tell whether it follows along in the parade.
SEAL Team Six: The Raid on bin Laden premieres Sunday, November 4 at 8 p.m. on National Geographic Channel.