One of the most captivating stories of the last few years has been the hunt for, and subsequent killing of Osama Bin Laden. Everything from the intelligence gathering, to the rigorous preparation, to the incident itself has sparked the imagination of many an author and filmmaker, as no fewer than three books and two films have been produced since the raid that ended the terrorist's life on May 2, 2011.
Of course, with much of the factual account having been sealed away from the public's eye, there are plenty of speculative retellings of the event to fuel an audience's imagination and thirst for knowledge about one of the most doggedly pursued individuals in recent memory. Most notable, is the sure-fire Oscar contender 'Zero Dark Thirty,' from Academy Award-winning director Kathryn Bigelow, and the less lauded, but first-out-of-the-gate offering from the National Geographic Channel, 'SEAL Team Six: The Raid on Osama Bin Laden.'
Those who have viewed Nat Geo's offering from John "Cougar" Stockwell know that it's definitely the diminutive Danny DeVito to Bigelow's beefier Schwarzenegger, but perhaps the bigger story is the mild ruckus it stirred up when the cable channel decided to show it on November 4, 2012 – just two days prior to the most recent presidential election. Well, now that the furor over National Geographic's supposed "pro-Obama" campaign has arguably diminished – replaced now by the supposed "pro-torture" agenda of Bigelow's film – 'SEAL Team Six' can be better looked at as the unfortunate melodramatic misfire that it was, rather than having to weigh the possibility that it's airdate was motivated by political leanings against its shortcomings as a military narrative.
Moral or political objections aside, perhaps the principal challenge for both of these films are the way they choose to integrate fact with fiction. This aspect certainly proves to be the largest fault in Stockwell's rendition of the events, which is derived from a screenplay by first-time-screenwriter Kendall Lampkin. Here, Lampkin's screenplay chooses to play up the more melodramatic moments between the soldiers, by inserting flashes of their personal lives, or a professional squabble between two of the more prominent members of the SEAL team (as much as that can be said of these fictionalized composites of real men).
In that regard, 'SEAL Team Six' does bring along some names and faces that are as recognizable as can be imagined for a production like this. Cam Gigandet ('Twilight'), Anson Mount ('Hell on Wheels'), Freddy Rodriguez ('Six Feet Under') and Xzibit round out the SEAL team while William Fichtner ('Drive Angry') and Kathleen Robertson of Starz' recently canceled 'Boss' round out the cast. For what it's worth, Robertson appears to be portraying much the same character as Mayor Kane's advisor, Kitty, since she is dressed in the exact same wardrobe and acts with the same steely demeanor as her premium-cable analog. Still, recognizable faces or not, the screenplay fails to offer anything more compelling about these characters than a collection of syrupy moments where the soldiers check in with family members and loved ones, and a severely underdeveloped clash for the leadership position between Gigandet and Mount.
The trouble is not necessarily with the melodramatic moments themselves (though they are problematic), but rather the fact that they exist at all. These moments of soldiers Skyping with their family, or bickering with one another while at a shooting range are the kind of unnecessarily elaborate character additions this very specific, very straightforward program simply has no need for. Then, sadly, as if to add an additional gripe, portions of the film are comprised of interviews, or depositions by the SEALs and a CIA analyst (Robertson), whose obsession with hunting Bin Laden nearly bordered on mania. Like the family moments, these confessionals only serve to take a semi-factual thriller, and fill it with elements that are focused too much on the individual, too independent of the actual account and, perhaps worst of all, utterly discordant with the way the rest of the film flows.
When 'SEAL Team Six' works, it works as a swiftly paced military thriller, a light action movie with real-world elements and implications. During its best moments, Stockwell and Lampkin thrillingly combine the intelligence gathering of the analysts, the spying of the on-ground assets, and the meticulous training of the SEALs into a lean procedural that is briefly poised to bring about a well-known climax, but instead loses its suspense in the maudlin dramatic build up of characters who are already remarkable in their own right. In a sense, it feels as though Lampkin's screenplay is unsure of the audience's interest in the SEALs, and is attempting to make them more relatable, while at the same time toeing the line with just how much idolization is appropriate in the context of the picture. Ultimately, those aspects wind up feeling overloaded and the whole thing winds up faltering.
'SEAL Team Six' simply doesn't pack the kind of dramatic punch its ripped-from-the-headlines story would suggest. Watching it, one cannot deny it is a slick effort on behalf of those involved, but the project is one that feels aimed to beat a major motion picture to the punch while falling back on a claim of newsworthiness and tenuous journalistic integrity to offset the overly-dramatic elements that, in the end, undo everything else done right by what is ultimately a made-for-TV movie.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
'SEAL Team Six' comes as a single Blu-ray disc in the standard keep case. It's hails from The Weinstein Company and Anchor Bay, so ahead of the disc are several trailers for the documentaries that the companies have recently released, as though this might belong in the same category. The top menu is sparse, but easy to navigate, and manages to look like the kind of menu for a techno-thriller like Tony Scott used to make.
Despite coming with a 1080p AVC/MPEG-4 transfer, 'SEAL Team Six' only manages to deliver an occasionally sharp picture that captures fine detail and textures, while also recreating accurate depth in very important scenes that are depicted in low light. As such, there is some question as to what kind of look Stockwell and his DP, Peter Holland, were going for in several scenes, considering the film struggles to congeal as much with its visual aspects as it does in the narrative. The picture looks different in each component of the story; namely, the actual procedural aspects, and the post-mission testimonials sprinkled about the story. At a certain point, it looks like the decision was made to shoot in a style that felt reminiscent of Michael Mann's somewhat divisive HD style on 'Collateral,' while other portions appear to be filmed in a fashion more akin to contemporary, premium-cable television standards.
The end result of this is an uneven presentation where scenes featuring Kathleen Robertson, William Fichtner and 'American Pie' co-star Eddie Kaye Thomas look pristine, while the actual raid is presented in a deliberate(?), and disappointing lower-grade quality. In these scenes, fine detail is largely lost, while blacks work to swallow up the image to a small, but noticeable degree. Additionally, shadow delineation is not nearly as strong as it could be (which, again, could be intentional), and the result is a slightly muddied picture that doesn't quite capture what is obviously meant to be a very cinematic sequence.
On the flipside, segments where the SEAL team is performing in broad daylight, or are training in places like the aforementioned shooting range, manage to look quite good, and are on par with the CIA sequences. Here, contrast levels are at their highest, producing a clean, crisp picture with even tones and bright colors – when available, that is. Fine detail is actually fairly high, which may have some role in why the more procedural elements of the film actually play more compellingly than the military aspects.
For what it's worth, the picture on 'SEAL Team Six' comes off as adequate, considering the budgetary constraints of the production, and its multiple filming locales. This certainly isn't reference quality, but it does manage to highlight most areas needing such attention.
The film comes with a rather robust sounding DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 track that competently handles whatever scene is thrown at it. As much of the film is laden with dialogue, the first task of the mix is to ensure that each character is heard clearly, and that spoken lines are combined with things like score and sound effects in a successful manner. In that regard, the DTS mix for 'SEAL Team Six' does its job remarkably well. Dialogue is clear and precise, and even when it is spoken over the din of a firefight, or a busy marketplace, words come through exactly as they were meant to.
Much of the dialogue comes through the center channel speaker, but there are plenty of instances where the mix shows some impressive range and imaging by placing actors voices across the front and sometimes rear channels to give a better example of where everyone is in a particular scene. This is most effective during the team's training exercises where a combination of shouts and confirmations are laced with explosions and a heavy amount of gunfire. Surprisingly, not a line of dialogue sounds as though gets lost in even the heaviest of gun battles.
And in these action sequences is where the mix's strengths really lie. It adeptly handles the different sounds several different weapons and explosive devices produce, and creates an immersive experience for the listener, who is eagerly anticipating the film's climactic sequence. At its heart, the DTS-HD Master Audio knows this film is a military thriller, and it does its best to provide a very good experience for the listener.
Approaching a story such as this certainly comes with its fair share of positives and negatives. On one hand the raid on Bin Laden's compound is still incredibly fresh in the minds of the viewing audience, which helps to make the militaristic aspects of 'SEAL Team Six' that much more compelling; certainly, anyone with even a passing interest in the story would like to know more about the details. And sadly, that is also where the film begins to show its cracks. The depiction of the raid has come under its fair share of scrutiny and praise, which really, as long as it doesn't go completely off the deep end is totally understandable – chances are, there will be aspects of the encounter that will always be withheld. The problem is that Lampkin's screenplay is determined to humanize the SEALs in a way that comes with the overwhelming sameness as every other military-centric thriller before. In the end, playing up the procedural aspects of the event, and leaving the more saccharine dramatic elements out would have better served the story. Still, with interest in the death of Bin Laden surging once more, this is a disc worth checking out – but only for those who haven't already gotten their fill elsewhere.