The latter movie brings with it an unlikely group of players. Directed by John Stockwell ("Tursistas," "Into The Blue," "Crazy/Beautiful"), its biggest names are Cam Gigandet and Xzibit, and unlike Bigelow's two-and-a-half-hour epic, it runs a mere ninety minutes. The picture earned a tiny bit of press and controversy last fall when it was reported that the filmmakers were tweaking the movie to better position President Barack Obama, an argument not helped by the decision to air 'Team Six' on the National Geographic Channel on November 4th, two days before the election. And while it was cut for the TV broadcast, select clips of Mitt Romney and John McCain opposing the hunt for the terrorist leader remain in the home video version. It's a lone partisan moment in an otherwise straight-laced effort.
And while the budgets and scope between "Zero Dark Thirty" and "Seal Team Six" are wildly different, they also overlap in several key areas. Given that both movies will be widely available this week, we thought it would be interesting to compare and contrast the two. But screenwriter Kendall Lampkin, who penned Stockwell's flick, perhaps sums up the key difference best. "I tried to make a story that would hold up even if the headlines changed," he said in a "Seal Team Six" special feature. "It's not about details, it's about people. So that, no matter how much the details change on the news, we don't have to keep changing the script."
Below, we'll get into how both movies approach torture, 9/11 and the final raid on the compound in Abbotabad. And while spoilers for a recent historical event seem a bit silly, if you're concerned, yes there will be spoilers.
One of the most important elements that both movies present as crucial to the operation to find Bin Laden is the tenacity of a determined CIA agent. Named Maya in Bigelow's movie, and Vivian in Stockwell's picture, whoever she is in real life, the agent must be flattered to have beautiful women Jessica Chastain and Kathleen Robertson ("Boss," "Beverly Hills 90210") portraying her. Moreover, she pretty much gets the same characterization in each film.
"We should bomb the fuck out of it," Vivian declares when options are discussed about how to approach the Bin Laden compound. "I'm gonna smoke everyone in this op," Maya says after losing a friend and colleague in a suicide bombing. "Then I'm going to kill Bin Laden." In short, both are as ruthless in their dedication to gathering evidence and making a case as they are passionate about seeing the Al Qaeda leader pay for his crimes. Vivian is friends with someone who had a family in one of the World Trade Center towers, while Maya's pursuit seems to be more obsessive, with a personal stake that only develops later on. ("I believe I was spared so I could finish the job," Maya declares). But either way, whoever this agent was, she gets represented as an unwavering fighter who battles the chain of command in order to see the final objective through.
As we said in the opening, one movie sprawls over two and a half hours, while the other clocks in at just over half that time, so the scope of each, obviously, is different. In Bigelow's picture, at least one-third to half the film is spent detailing the search for Abu Ahmed al-Kuwaiti, Bin Laden's trusted courier and right-hand man. He's the link to finding the feared leader, and "Zero Dark Thirty" shows the work that went into verifying his identity, chasing leads and eventually tracking him down. It's an opportunity for audiences to see just how complex and clinical that kind of work is, and it's riveting stuff.
However, Stockwell's film doesn't have that luxury of time or budget, and as the screenwriter revealed, they couldn't get too fixated on the nitty gritty details. So "Seal Team Six" opens with a pre-credit sequence in 2002, in which a detainee at Guantanamo Bay offers up some intel. We then fast forward to 18 months away from May 1, 2011, with operations in full swing in Pakistan, and Vivian making the case to her superiors that indeed, Osama Bin Laden is alive and in the compound in Abbatobad. Basically, "Zero Dark Thirty" fills in that huge gap of time, when many other worldwide terrorist incidents continued the intense pressure to bring down Bin Laden. Meanwhile, "Seal Team Six" most concerns itself with the SEAL team, and how they trained and bonded for the operation.
Even more than ten years after September 1, 2011, a day that forever changed the face of the country, portraying what happened on the big screen has been tricky. There is no doubt that the World Trade Center towers coming down, along with the downed plane smashing into the Pentagon, dramatically refocused military and intelligence efforts. But it was a day that also changed the lives of ordinary Americans, who suddenly realized that things that seemed to happen only in Other Places, could very well strike at home.
Bigelow gracefully opens "Zero Dark Thirty" on a black screen, with only various actual audio from the day playing, perhaps most notably, one panicked voice of a woman in one of the towers, who comes to the realization with a 911 operator listening on the line, that she's going to die. It's heartbreaking, raw-nerved stuff that immediately conveys how monumental historically, emotionally and personally 9/11 was for everyone. Stockwell isn't bothered by such nuance, and "Seal Team Six" is more than happy to haul out footage of the planes slamming into each tower, in a pretty big swipe at the heartstrings that mostly feels cheap, easy and exploitative.