Just in time for this holiday season, the big American media machine has a slew of products that depict Operation Neptune Spear—the raid that killed Osama bin Laden. Books, video games, made-for-TV movies, and Hollywood epics: this military operation is the gift that keeps on giving. After all, catching Public Enemy No. 1 deserves only our very best holiday effort. But it’s not the end product that is driving our fascination—it’s the unique and unprecedented recipe that Hollywood itself could never cook up, even with its own army of writers.
So before you venture off into the market place for your SEAL Team Six fix, take a look at our breakdown and how each of the following works decided to interpret the story and its facts. In the mix, we have:
—Kathryn Bigelow and Mark Boal’s Zero Dark Thirty—John Stockwell’s National Geographic Channel made-for-TV movie SEAL Team Six—Mark Bowden’s The Finish—The Killing Of Osama Bin Laden —Mark Owen’s (nom de plume) No Easy Day—Medal of Honor “Warfighter”
1. The Benchmark: Zero Dark Thirty, directed by Kathryn Bigelow
Out this week comes the definitive tell-all to what is being advertised as the “greatest manhunt in history.” From The Hurt Locker team Kathryn Bigelow and Mark Boal, Zero Dark Thirty (military jargon for an unspecified time of night) will go down in movie history as a true hybrid between Hollywood Blockbuster and 60 Minutes piece. Despite recent controversy over its portrayal of brutal enhanced interrogation techniques to ascertain the identity of bin Laden’s courier, Abu Ahmed Al Kuwaiti, ZDT serves primarily as a timeline that meticulously paints the 10 years between 9/11 and bin Laden’s death, showcasing many of the CIA’s secret successes and highly publicized failures.
Without divulging too much, the film goes out of its way to portray the extent to which intelligence agents felt hamstrung as soon as torture was “banned” from their playbook. As Hollywood movies go, it is difficult to find any egregious liberties taken to make this story more “entertaining” than it already is. Despite the film’s pretentious use of acronyms assigned to HVTs (high-value targets) like UBL (in Arabic, it’s pronounced Usama bin Laden) or KSM (Khalid Sheik Mohammed), viewers who stay tuned throughout will walk away with a strong understanding of the public record.
But buyer beware: very little of ZDT is devoted to SEAL Team 6 but rather to the efforts of a female analyst with the “gut of gold'—named Maya—think Carrie Mathison from Homeland without “crazy face.” Zero Dark Thirty will be remembered as her personal journey and struggle to actualize what for so long seemed impossible. Though Bigelow and Boal are generous in spreading the credit, they make a point of maintaining the spotlight on Maya, which will undoubtedly raise questions about the contributions of other intelligence agents whose work went unnoticed during the decades-long manhunt.
In ZDT, the actual raid on Osama bin Laden bares more resemblance to a surgical procedure than an all-out military assault. Viewers will be amazed at how wisely and carefully the SEALs moved through to their objective while also maximizing their precious time on the ground. The scene will have a sobering effect on those expecting a massive shootout—there are zero gratuitous gunshots or bomb explosions to be found, which by all accounts seems reflective of what has been publicly disclosed. As well, this will be the first time the public will be able to enjoy renderings of the top secret, heavily modified Blackhawk helicopters that stealthily carried the team into Pakistan, which have long been the subject of speculation on various military and defense blogs.
2. The Book: The Finish: The Killing of Osama Bin Laden by Mark Bowden
For those seeking to go deeper down the rabbit hole, Mark Bowden’s book is the one for you. In addition to covering all of the important ingredients, Bowden spends far more time covering the path and personal histories of major figures including President Obama and Osama bin Laden and their eventual roles in this saga. Unlike Zero Dark Thirty, which many will view as polarizing on the subject of torture, very little ink in The Finish is spent on Bush-era torture techniques.
The book’s greatest contribution to the narrative is its discussion of a little-known CIA program called The Alec Station, which was solely dedicated to hunting Osama bin Laden from 1996 to 2005. The station and its director, Michael Schuerer (who wrote his own book four months before OBL’s death), are neither acknowledged in Zero Dark Thirty nor in any other recent major media account of the manhunt. Bowden describes Schuerer as an unorthodox CIA agent who was tasked for the first time in the agency’s history for hunting down a single individual. Schuerer and his group, nicknamed the “Manson Family” for their quirky nature, became obsessed and soon felt ostracized by their superiors’ unwillingness to act on sound intelligence, which hypothetically could have taken out bin Laden before 9/11 on eight separate occasions. (Disclosure: civilian collateral damage was almost always the reason against acting.)
In addition to providing detailed descriptions of alternatives to a ground assault on the Abbotabad compound, Bowden offers a laughably simple but revealing explanation why the elite members of SEAL Team 6 were used in the first place over other (presumably) qualified branches of the Special Forces. He explains: “The SEALs were selected primarily because their commander was available, and the corresponding commander of the Army’s Delta Force was not.” (Essentially, “sorry we’re not available”). Additionally, “part of the reasoning for choosing the SEAL team was that in recent years it had successfully conducted about a dozen secret missions inside Pakistan.”
3. The Other Book: No Easy Day, The Autobiography of a Navy Seal, by Mark Owen
This book made quite the splash when it was released in September since it was a first-person account of the raid. Mark Owen (the nom de plume for Matt Bissonnette) carefully recounts his life and career as a member of SEAL Team 6. Emphasis on “carefully,” since he makes a point of not divulging any compromising top-secret information. To his credit, Mark Bowden himself (and later 60 Minutes) relied on Owen’s step-by-step account of the SEAL team’s movement through the compound, which is unparalleled in its detail. Though there has been a lot of controversy over Owen’s choice to come out and publish his own account, his story goes well beyond other titles to shed light on the inner workings of such a close-knit unit, which continue to operate well outside of the public’s consciousness to this day. As an extra bonus to readers, Owen takes us through other notable missions he participated in, including the amazing rescue of Captain Richard Phillips from Somali Pirates.
4. The TV Movie: Seal Team Six: The Raid on Osama Bin Laden directed by John Stockwell
Despite the difficulty of mentioning this title in the same breath as Zero Dark Thirty, Seal Team Six technically made it to the market place first with its very different approach to the story. This story focuses on the “Tier 1 Operators” who conducted the raid—and spends little to no time on the eight years it took to track down bin Laden’s courier.
Factually, this film gets most of the story right but is plagued by heavy dramatization that ZDT does without altogether. (And to the dismay of hardcore fans, there are no special stealth helicopters to be found in this version.) It is also very difficult to consolidate this portrayal of SEAL Team 6 with Mark Owen’s own personal one.
One could only wonder how the filmmakers could proceed to production knowing their work would live in the larger and more authentic shadow of Bigelow and Boal’s labor of love. (Disclosure: Nicolas Chartier, producer of The Hurt Locker and enfant terrible of the 2010 Oscar Season, was behind this particular project.)
If Zero Dark Thirty is a beautiful cut of red meat that is seasoned and cooked to perfection, Seal Team Six is no better than a quarter pounder with cheese—and sometimes, people just want a good ol’ burger.
5. The Video Game: Medal of Honor: Warfighter
Though Call of Duty: Black Ops 2 will be the more popular video game this holiday season, we were intrigued by Medal of Honor because of its unique offering to play a first-person shooter as a Navy SEAL. Furthermore, the company behind this project crafted a special partnership with the filmmakers of Zero Dark Thirty to create a special “Map Pack” that we couldn’t help to check out. On top of that, they also hired SEAL Team 6 members to consult on the project, which recently ended with them receiving career-ending reprimands. But in the end, and to our dismay, there was no Abbotabad Compound level to play through. Frenzied gamers won't even be able to take out OBL himself—but instead go after another baddy conveniently named “The Cleric.” There’s almost no factual resemblance to Neptune Spear to be found. But, being a video game after all, no surprise there.