David Zurawik

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

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."

Weinstein, a Hollywood producer and ardent backer of Democratic candidates, bought the film, which was made for theatrical release, after seeing it at Cannes. He is the one who made the unusual deal to have it air first on National Geographic Sunday and then be available on Netflix starting Monday. He is also the one who had Stockwell include news and archival images of Obama in the film to the point where the president is now a leading figure in the version that will air Sunday.

The National Geographic Channel is an interesting choice, given that Republican backer Rupert Murdoch's News Corp. owns 71 percent of the channel. But what seems to matter most to the executives running the channel is the chance to do something that could snap it out of the also-ran category of cable outlets -- at least for a night.

"This amazing film is destined to have a major impact on viewers who will see our channel's scope widen as we host the world's premiere of our first scripted project," Harold Owens, president of the National Geographic Channel, said in a statement last week.

Here's what I can tell you: The depiction of Obama is the story of this film, and in these polarized, partisan times, feelings toward the president will probably shape how viewers react to "SEAL Team Six."

It seems as if we can no longer have an intellectual discussion about issues like media balance, fair play and social conscience. Now, it's all about bias, and the conventional wisdom is that everyone is hopelessly biased and the only honest journalists are the ones who acknowledge their bias.

There is a feature film about the killing of bin Laden that's being done by Academy Award-winning director Kathryn Bigelow, but she and the producers are waiting until after the election to release it.

I will not judge the motives of Weinstein and Stockwell in premiering their docudrama two days before the election. Nor will I try to tell you why Owens and National Geographic are willing to be party to it.

I just wish they had erred on the side of caution and not opened the door for the possibility of their TV production unduly influencing the political process. I wish they held off a few nights on premiering the film and feeding the beast of partisan paranoia that so devours us this election year.


"Seal Team Six: The Raid on Osama bin Laden" premieres at 8 p.m. Sunday on the National Geographic Channel. It will be available Monday on Netflix.