‘Zero Dark Thirty,’ from a Navy SEAL’s perspective

By Mike Hixenbaugh
The Virginian-Pilot
© January 13, 2013

The theater was quiet as a stealthy helicopter carrying sweaty Navy SEALs and the body of Osama bin Laden lifted into darkness over Pakistan.

It was the climax of “Zero Dark Thirty,” the Hollywood movie that painstakingly details the epic manhunt for the world’s most-wanted terrorist, beginning with crackling 911 recordings from the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, and ending nearly three hours later with the 2011 mission to kill the man who orchestrated them.

On screen, a few of the Virginia Beach-based SEALs who had just carried out the raid were hooting and hollering as they tossed a black bag holding bin Laden’s body onto a gurney.

One of the film SEALs let out a celebratory “Wooo!”

I could sense patriotic pride swelling inside the crowded Norfolk theater.

“Nah,” the steely-eyed guy sitting next to me said later, dismissing the moment of triumph. “That wouldn’t have happened.”

He would know.

With critics clamoring over the Academy Award Best Picture-nominated film, and with politicians bickering over the movie’s depiction of torture, I watched “Zero Dark Thirty” the way every American should – with a Navy SEAL critiquing it in the seat next to me.

My highly-trained movie date laughed through the previews. Nearly all were action flicks with over-the-top gun fights.

“This is why I laugh when celebrities talk about gun violence,” the former SEAL said, before finishing off his popcorn.

The recently-retired operator served on multiple deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan. He agreed to watch the film with a reporter, but he didn’t want his name or other identifying details published.

(You also won’t read many of this elite sailor’s most compelling comments in this family newspaper. Remarks have been paraphrased to avoid profane language.)

“I usually do my best to avoid this stuff,” he told me before the movie, referring to pop-culture depictions of SEALs, which have become more common since the bin Laden raid.

We sat quietly for most of the film, only occasionally interrupting the drama on screen to share a thought. I watched the final raid with a different perspective knowing the guy sitting next to me had been on similar missions.

Aside from the chest-thumping celebration after the raid – “Guys aren’t like that; that was a little too loud,” he said later – and some unnecessary shouting during the stealthy mission in Abbottabad, he said he was impressed with the film.

It seemed authentic, he said.

And that bothered him.

“The movie fit snugly with the narrative that’s been pushed by senior leadership, and I don’t think that’s by accident,” he said.

Director Kathryn Bigelow and screenwriter Mark Boal were granted unprecedented access to CIA information to make the film, according to written correspondence between the filmmakers and government officials. Their research included a meeting with a commander of the elite Virginia Beach-based unit tapped to complete the mission. (Most Americans know the unit as SEAL Team 6; in the world of special operations, it’s DEVGRU – Naval Special Warfare Development Group.)

Real-life SEALs have helped with other recent films, including “Act of Valor,” a fictionalized action flick made in partnership with the Navy. Others are consulting on “Lone Survivor,” a Hollywood version of SEAL Marcus Luttrell’s book now in production.

Bigelow’s film follows the true story of a hard-nosed female CIA agent who spent the better part of a decade relentlessly tracking bin Laden. SEALs play a supporting role, appearing only during the last third of the movie. The agent, known in the movie as Maya, is presumably the same woman who was dubbed “Jen” in the controversial SEAL memoir “No Easy Day.”

That book, released last fall, details the bin Laden mission and landed its lead author, former SEAL Matt Bissonnette, who participated in the raid, in hot water with officials at the Pentagon for allegedly revealing classified information.

“Zero Dark Thirty” offered up many more details than “No Easy Day,” my lethal movie date grumbled.

“The message is: Senior people can sell out, but if one of the guys who actually did some heavy lifting over the past decade gets out and tries to tell his story, well that’s a crime,” he said.

State secrets aside, the SEAL said the movie was well-produced and entertaining. The depiction of guys tossing horseshoes and goofing around during down-time jibed with his experience with the teams. And the quiet professionalism of the SEALs during the raid reminded him of many missions he participated in.

But he said the movie’s laser-like focus on the woman who followed the paper trail to bin Laden, while effective, leaves out a big part of the post-9/11 story – the tens of thousands of men and women who have laid down their lives or suffered physical and mental wounds while fighting al-Qaida overseas.

“If anyone buys a ticket to see this movie and is entertained, I think they should donate an equal amount of money to the SEAL Legacy Foundation or another veterans group,” he said.

The nationwide release of “Zero Dark Thirty” this weekend coincided with that of another bin Laden film. “SEAL Team Six: The Raid on Osama bin Laden” is now available on Blu-ray and is streaming on Netflix. The made-for-TV docudrama includes fake interviews with members of SEAL Team 6, spliced with testosterone-packed action scenes and throbbing electronic music.

As if the actual story wasn’t dramatic enough, the movie gins up some tension between a surfer-boy SEAL unit leader and one of his redneck teammates, culminating in a physical showdown days before the mission.

I asked the former SEAL if he’d be willing to watch that one with me, too.

He said he’d rather be shot.

(In so many words.)

Mike Hixenbaugh, 757-446-2949, mike.hixenbaugh@pilotonline.com

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