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'SEAL Team Six' fails in its mission

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Some fuss was recently made over the role President Obama plays in "SEAL Team Six: The Raid on Osama bin Laden," a docu-drama premiering on National Geographic Channel on Sunday. There were accusations that the timing — days before the election — and the late-hour insertion of additional footage of the president, including a voice-over describing the decision-making process, were designed to boost Obama's reelection bid.

Despite subsequent protests from the network and the filmmakers, the partisan kerfuffle can work only to their advantage; no doubt more people will watch "SEAL Team Six" in light of the mild controversy. And perhaps for a moment our nation will be united on one point: The president's screen time, which, frankly, does not seem excessive, is the least of this film's problems.

Docu-dramas are often dicey enterprises, especially when they involve a) classified material, b) political assassination, and c) an event that occurred in recent memory. It's one thing to engage in a little "loosely based" fudging about the court of Marie Antoinette or even the rescue of American Embassy workers in 1979.

TIMELINE: The path to bin Laden

But the dust from Operation Neptune Spear has barely settled. And despite the credentials of those involved, including director John Stockwell ("Into the Blue"), "Hurt Locker" producer Nicolas Chartier and the Weinstein Co., "SEAL Team Six" was worrisome from the get-go.

Predictably, the filmmakers have chosen to use a mix of real and staged footage to tell the story. Less predictably, and far less wisely, the staged portions include a series of expository "interviews" with the principal characters, though who they are being interviewed by, or for what purpose beside narrative laziness, is never made clear.

The film's most troubling aspect is the cartoonish nature of these characters, who get the lion's share of screen time. Including and especially, Vivian Hollins a female CIA analyst played by Kathleen Robertson in lip gloss and pencil skirts.

According to "No Easy Day," a first-person account written by real-life former SEAL Team Six member Matt Bissonnette under the pseudonym Mark Owen, there was indeed a key female analyst involved in promoting the mission, and possibly she is quite young and attractive. But, honestly, do we always have to go blond hottie behind smarty-pants glasses for roles like these? (At least in "Homeland," Claire Danes' comely CIA agent Carrie has a genuine mental illness. Also, no fake glasses.)

Vivian is clearly the Carrie stand-in here. After a prisoner in Guantanamo gives up a name that belongs to an Al Qaeda courier, she has him tracked, discovers the mysterious Pakistani compound and is soon insisting — correctly, as it turns out — that the 6-foot-5 guy strolling around behind the walls is Bin Laden. William Fichtner plays her immediate supervisor (with Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta represented only by phone), an equally trite character, who keeps saying things like, "I need more evidence." This is what passes for ancillary plot.

TIMELINE: The life of Osama bin Laden

Vivian isn't the only character pulled from the Idiot's Guide to Stock Characters. There are the team members themselves, who break down essentially into the white redneck charmer Cherry (Anson Mount), the white preppie team leader Stunner (Cam Gigandet) and the black family guy Mule (Alvin Joiner a.k.a. Xzibit). Cherry and Stunner have some "issues": Cherry thinks Stunner is too young for the job, Stunner worries he is right. And this is what passes for character development.

Although particularly insulting when you consider the true heroics and canny intelligence the operation entailed, "SEAL Team Six" is undone by the inevitable conundrum of any docu-drama: Which side do you favor — the docu, or the drama?

If it's the documentary, then the story rests on the revelation of true and historic detail. We all know how it ends, so getting there must provide the tension. If it's the drama, then you have to be willing to sacrifice certain intricacies of plot in the interest of fleshing out the characters.

"SEAL Team Six," though inevitably exciting in its conclusion and touching at times, refuses to commit either way. This failure of nerve not only dooms the film as both docu- and drama but also contradicts its main theme.

Because when the president and those around him were faced with ordering a mission that could just as easily failed as succeeded, they did make the call.

mary.mcnamara@latimes.com

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