We got rules, the other side don’t.
— Cherry (Anson Mount)
“Being obsessed with a target is like having a one-way affair. It’s secret and you can’t stop thinking about him, but you’re always alone. The only question is how it’ll end.” Or not.
Even as CIA risk analyst Vivian Hollins (Kathleen Robertson) describes her personal fixation on get Osama bin Laden — it began on September 11, she explains, when her college roommate lost her father and brother in the South Tower, and it was “awful” — she’s describing as well the dramatic hurdle for SEAL Team Six: The Raid on Osama bin Laden. That is, you know exactly how it ends.
Vivian, like everyone else in Harvey Weinstein’s much-ballyhooed Obama-boosting entertainment “inspired by real events,” does her best to make this foregone conclusion thrilling. She pursues her obsession as such, conjuring a series of plans out of the suspicion that Osama bin Laden is in Abbottabad, ruing the missed opportunity in Tora Bora (“We had him and we let him go”), believing her hunch that tall guy pacing in the compound is so worth following up. When her boss, Guidry (William Fichtner), early on asks for her proposal concerning the site, she’s got one: “Bomb the fuck out of it, sir.”
As resolute (and attractive!) as Vivian may be, she’s got a lot of men to convince. Not only is Guidry skeptical of the lack of “real actionable intelligence,” but so too is her colleague Christian (Eddie Kaye Thomas) and Leon Panetta, voice-acted on the phone so as to prod Vivian to ever greater effort. When at last she sneaks a local doctor inside the compound on the pretense of a “vaccination drive,” Vivian is elated but also, she confesses after the fact, “All of a sudden the live feed is running and I realize I’m putting someone’s life in danger!”
The live feed is key to John Stockwell’s film, a device that allows him to include Pete Souza’s famous photo of the Situation Room crowd watching the raid on 2 May 2011. Throughout, the film makes clear the technologies that provided live feeds — the cameras set up in an apartment building near the compound, the repeated surveillance drive-bys performed by “two assets on the ground in Peshawar,” and the satellites that didn’t quite identify the Pacer but showed he was tall. Scritchy and blurred and accompanied by propulsive percussion, these images tilt and pitch and come with prominent time stamps. All this is to say they’re real-ish, based on testimonies and scraps of intel, cobbled together to resemble a videogame.
Even while these live feeds might give you some sense of how it felt to watch from a distance, as the CIA and the White House did at the time, SEAL Team Six also includes some views on site, as well as made-up exit interviews with participants. These insist on your inability to grasp what you’re seeing. As team member Cherry (Anson Mount) puts it, “If you ain’t been out on a mission with us or ain’t trained with us, you can’t know how we are.” Still, he and Stunner (Cam Gigandet) offer some assistance on this count, describing how they see their mission, their team, and their allegiance.
It happens that these versions of the team members are locked in a particular competition (“It killed Cherry that I was team leader,” says Stunner, younger and more clean-cut). Cherry notes that his fellow all have wives and even children; he’s just got his mom and a “few girls every now and then.” Long-haired and roughhewn, Cherry self-identifies as a “hotheaded redneck” and calls his rival “a surfer boy,” then picks a fight during a training run that their skipper (Robert Knepper) has to break up.
Such intra-team melodrama doesn’t distract from the film’s focus so much as it illustrates it: again and again, the boys declare their need for payback, whether for a comrade killed by a suicide bomber or, in the case of Mule (Xzibit), for the vision of the burning WTC, which he witnessed from his home in Brooklyn when he was a boy. As Mule describes the scene for Trench (Freddy Rodriguez), the film cuts to TV footage of the event, reminding the rest of us that even if we didn’t see it from Brooklyn or even closer, the footage is forever.
And this is the film’s point. As Vivian and the boys ponder risks and assert their objectives, we see bits and pieces of their motivation, the televised tragedy that lingers for everyone, the digital archive that will never be lost and might always be used for shifting ends. The harrowing TV-ness of 9/11 matches up with the new, slicker TV-ness of the raid on Osama bin Laden.
The grainy chaos of the video is the sign of its authenticity, even if that effect is easily mimicked and manufactured. The movie reminds you of the risk of the mission and the uncertainty that framed the president’s “gutsy call.” It creates tension even if it’s familiar, it solicits visceral reactions. “There aren’t many times in life when you can realize that everything you’ve sacrificed for a goal has been worth it,” says Vivian, removing her glasses to dab at her eyes. “Because that goal is so much bigger and so much more important than any individual.” And now that it’s a TV movie, everyone else can realize it too.