There is nothing very special about SEAL Team Six: The Raid on Osama Bin Laden as a TV movie. But its timing–marking Barack Obama‘s highest-profile military achievement the Sunday before an election–makes it impossible to discuss only as a TV movie. You can talk about its production (TV-flick-corny) or its version of history (unexceptionable), but the fact remains that on Nov. 4, National Geographic Channel is not airing Salt Lake City Rescue: The 2002 Olympics Story.
Figuring out the timing is an exercise in mind-reading, but the movie is clearly not designed to hurt the President. Producer Harvey Weinstein is a prominent Democratic donor, and there were reports that the film had been edited to make Obama’s role in the decision more prominent. On the other hand, National Geographic is a cable channel that wants ratings, and there is a good chance that, were this movie airing a week later, you and I–and many of its critics–would not be giving it any attention at all. (The scheduling also puts the movie out ahead of Kathryn Bigelow’s Zero Dark Thirty, which was specifically pushed back to be released after the election.)
It’s at least a good publicity move, because in itself the movie is at best a competent, bland docudrama, mixing file footage with re-enactments and familiar news accounts with just enough behind-the-scenes character conflict to spike a little -drama into the docu-.
In essence, SEAL Team Six plays like a slightly longer, much cheesier version of a Homeland episode. After an interrogation prologue set in 2002–reminding us that the hunt didn’t begin with Obama’s inauguration–it jumps forward to 2010, when the CIA picks up new intel on Bin Laden’s location in Pakistan. Our focus at the agency is Vivian Hollins (Kathleen Robertson), who’s a sort of Carrie Mathison minus the bipolar disorder and self-destructiveness. “Being obsessed with a target is like having a one-way affair,” she tells us in one of several confessionals to the camera. “It’s secret and you can’t stop thinking about him, but you’re always alone.”
Meanwhile, the movie tries to personalize the SEAL team members by fleshing out their biographies and personal conflicts—particularly between the prickly “Cherry” (Hell on Wheels’ Anson Mount in typically gruff mode) and the rest of his crew mates. The drama is so perfunctory, however, and the outcome so well-known, that it feels less like character revelation and more like padding.
Really, for all the criticism of the movie’s focus on the Administration’s role in taking out Bin Laden, that’s actually the movie’s one missed opportunity for real drama. Yes, it works in file footage and images of Obama–vowing in debates to get Bin Laden over Pakistan’s objections, speaking in an interview about the tense, uncertain decision to send special forces. As the raid threatens to go bad and a helicopter crashes, we see a pan of the famous still photo of Obama, Hillary Clinton and other officials watching the raid on a video monitor.
But the movie only hints at what must have been roiling military and political pressures at the White House. In one scene, CIA chief Leon Panetta, on speakerphone, scolds Hollins, “The President of the United States is going to be staking his presidency on this call. No one will ever know your name if it turns out badly.”
It’s only a taste, though, of possible political interest in a movie that moves methodically to a well-known outcome. Even the built-in action of the raid itself is decent at best: it’s like something from a first-person shooter videogame, right down to the thrumming soundtrack.
There will be plenty of argument about this movie and the election regardless, though it’s not exactly as if Team Obama has been making a secret of the raid to begin with. But as a TV movie, this is another controversial show whose real sin is not being interesting enough.