What both films get right is that right up until the moment the Navy SEALs were in the building facing down Osama Bin Laden with the business end of a military weapon, no one knew for sure if he was actually there. He never left the compound, the windows of the building were blacked out, and when he did go out for fresh air, it was in an orchard of grapes, with the leaves so thick above his head that satellite photos couldn't identify him. Not that the CIA didn't try their best to get a positive ID, but what "Seal Team Six" puts forth as the methods used to identify Bin Laden, "Zero Dark Thirty" refutes.
First off, Stockwell's film puts forward the narrative that two agents managed to snag an apartment within perfect binocular and telescope distance from the compound, with an unobscured view. And from there, they gathered countless footage and recordings of Bin Laden's little fortress. However, they needed to make sure they had the right man, so "Seal Team Six" explores the CIA's fake vaccination plan, in which undercover operatives were let onto the compound to inoculate everyone living there, in the hopes that a strain of Bin Laden DNA would be found on the needles from one of his children, proving his presence.
However, in "Zero Dark Thirty," screenwriter Mark Boal and Bigelow reveal that the vaccination plan, while real, didn't work, and moreover, there were no agents taking video and photos of the Abbotabad house.They were mostly working off satellite images, using shadows of walls and people, along with blurry video from way up above, to determine the heights, gender, ages and more of the people with Bin Laden. As for the big guy himself, even as the mission launched, opinions were wildly varied among intelligence officials as to whether or not he would be found.
Well, that's the million-dollar question, isn't it? As you read above, "Seal Team Six" begins with a Guantanamo Bay detainee giving up Abu Ahmed al-Kuwaiti. But why does he do it? Because he's threatened with being shipped to Saudi Arabia, so their intelligence community can interrogate him. The detainee is warned that not only will the flesh be ripped from his skin in Saudi Arabia's "state of the art" torture facilities, his wife and children will be brought in too. Essentially, the implication is made that if the United States does torture or treat their prisoners harshly, that's nothing compared to what some of their allies might do.
Stockwell defends this decision in a piece in the Huffington Post where he writes: "There is certainly an argument to be made that torture played a role in finding OBL but we chose to use the 'threat' of being sent to Saudi Arabia and facing their 'torture chambers' then depicting torture itself as useful in obtaining any credible information. Like so many other things in this mission, this argument will never be fully resolved, but it seemed more interesting to see the critical information obtained by a carrot then a stick. I'm confident torture was used many times during our war on terror but I'm also fairly certain it resulted in as much false information as real, actionable intelligence."
However, that final sentiment in Stockwell's quote is exactly what Bigelow and Boal achieve despite the continued "pro-torture" card that keeps being thrown at their film. Yes, "Zero Dark Thirty" presents some very tough scenes in which detainees are waterboarded, hung from their wrists, handcuffed to steel desks, put in a wooden box, deprived of sleep and more. But what most people seem to be missing is that, for the most part, those tactics don't work in their movie. Ammar, the source who endures the most punishment we see, gives up al-Kuwaiti not when he's in shackles, but after, when he's plyed with food, fresh air and cigarettes. And while later in the picture another detainee gives up intel to avoid further enhanced interrogation techniques, the movie is asking a larger question.
"Zero Dark Thirty" forces audiences to consider what is going on (or went on) at the CIA black sites, and face the uneasy relationship one might have with torture, but it does so without coming down on either side. And it's a smart play, because while one may vehemently and morally object to torture, one also has to acknowledge that while it's largely been proven to be ineffective, in some instances it did help the CIA on their mission. Reconciling that is uncomfortable, and Bigelow's film bravely leaves you in that space. For investigations to be launched asking if the CIA misled the filmmakers in an effort to pursue their own agenda, or to stick your head in the sand and pretend there was no torture and no intelligence gathered from such techniques, is to simply ignore history. And to posit that the movie is "pro-torture" is simply engaging "Zero Dark Thirty" on the most facile level possible.
Well, here's an instance where "Seal Team Six" has a slight leg up on "Zero Dark Thirty." While Bigelow's film doesn't ignore the extraordinary length of time between the discovery of Bin Laden's hideout and the Navy SEALs being ordered to do the job, it pretty much skips over their training period. As many accounts have illustrated, it was at the end of March 2011 that plans started being put together for a helicopter raid, and the SEALs trained extensively on a replica compound. Stockwell's film includes this, while Bigelow's leaves it out.
And while both films underscore the risk involved, "Seal Team Six" emphasizes that if even one Navy SEAL was lost in the mission, it would potentially be perceived as a failure (particularly if the target wasn't killed or captured). However, when it comes to how it played out on the ground, once again the restrained hand of Bigelow comes out on top. Stockwell presents the raid on the compound almost like the Alamo, with the team going in guns blazing -- for a covert operation, there's barely any silence. This is the rootin'-est, tootin'-est killing of Bin Laden ever (almost video-game-like), and furthermore, the big climax even becomes a bonding moment for two SEALs who weren't getting along. Aww.
"Zero Dark Thirty" is easily the more realistic depiction. Bigelow's movie not only spends much longer on the raid, it highlights the uncertainty and danger of every measured step and every silenced shot they took (why Stockwell's guys didn't muzzle their guns is puzzling). Even right up until Osama Bin Laden is killed, when the body is on the ground, they momentarily aren't sure if he's even the guy. You already know the outcome, but Bigelow's filmmaking still leaves your pulse racing and palms sweaty.
Still can't decide which version to watch? Let us put it this way: one movie is about Cam Gigandet proving he can lead a team of Navy SEALs. The other is a crackling and intelligent procedural about an effort that spanned the world to find Osama Bin Laden. One movie has Eddie Kaye Thomas from "American Pie," who winds up getting only a couple of lines, because it seems the bulk of his role was left on the cutting room floor. The other features an ensemble of Jessica Chastain, Jennifer Ehle, Mark Strong, James Gandolfini, Kyle Chandler, Joel Edgerton, Jason Clarke, Chris Pratt, Edgar Ramirez, Mark Duplass, Harold Perrineau and more all giving fantastic performances in a dense and knotty story. Choose wisely.
"Seal Team Six: The Raid On Osama Bin Laden" is now on home video. "Zero Dark Thirty" goes wide on Friday.