National Geographic Televise Bin Laden Film before American Election

by Brain Stelter

The National Geographic Channel plans to televise a feature film about the killing of Osama bin Laden on Nov. 4, two days before the presidential election.

The film, titled “Seal Team Six: The Raid on Osama Bin Laden,” will also stream on Netflix starting on Nov. 5.

“Seal Team Six” is a re-creation of the May 2011 killing of the terrorism mastermind, which was arguably the crowning national security achievement of President Obama’s term in office. Scheduling the premiere shortly before the election may turn the film into a political object, though a National Geographic Channel executive said Thursday night that politics was not a factor in the timing.

Instead, said Howard T. Owens, the channel’s president, said Nov. 4 was selected “to take advantage of our fall schedule” of shows, which will have their premieres in the days and weeks after “Seal Team Six.”

“Other than being commercially opportunistic, we weren’t considering the election,” Mr. Owens said.

The same questions were asked last year when a competing bin Laden film with a much bigger budget, “Zero Dark Thirty,” was tentatively scheduled for release in theaters shortly before Election Day, Nov. 6. Amid a partisan debate about whether the film would help Mr. Obama’s chances at the polls, Sony Pictures, the distributor, moved the premiere date to Dec. 19.

“Zero Dark Thirty” also came under scrutiny because the filmmakers, Mark Boal and Kathryn Bigelow, were given special briefings by the CIA. Representative Peter King, Republican of New York, has accused the Obama administration of “unprecedented” and “potentially dangerous” collaboration with the filmmakers, but the administration has said Mr. Boal and Ms. Bigelow were provided with the same information as other reporters, producers and movie-makers.

“Seal Team Six” has not been subject to the same accusations. National Geographic said Thursday that the film mostly sticks to the facts about the raid, though “some aspects of the characterizations have been dramatized for creative reasons.” It said the sequences in the film were “vetted by a team of experts including a recently retired Navy Seal, a top CIA operative and one of the most renowned bin Laden historians.”

The film was titled “Code Name Geronimo” when it was produced this year. Harvey Weinstein’s company snapped up distribution rights to the film during the Cannes Film Festival in May. He contemplated a theatrical release in the United States, but instead came to a distribution deal with National Geographic last month.

The film’s total budget is not known, but it’s believed to be a fraction of the $30 million spent on “Zero Dark Thirty.”

Though it is making its debut on television and not in theaters, “it feels like a feature,” Mr. Owens said, calling it “incredibly well-made” and citing a two-minute trailer that was posted online this week. The trailer incorporates some news video of Mr. Obama and other officials alongside fictional sequences set at the CIA headquarters and in Pakistan.

“Seal Team Six” was produced by Nicolas Chartier, who previously partnered with Mr. Boal and Ms. Bigelow on the Oscar-winning film “The Hurt Locker.” The director was John Stockwell, who previously directed “Into The Blue” and “Crazy/Beautiful.”

Mr. Stockwell said in a statement Thursday night, “We all know now the ultimate outcome of the President’s decision to green light the mission. But what was fascinating to me were all the potentially disastrous outcomes of the decision to give the go ahead to the raid that the movie highlights. It hopefully gets inside the challenges of making a decision that could have derailed a presidency.”

Twenty four hours after the TV premiere, in an unusual distribution deal engineered by Mr. Weinstein, the film will start streaming on Netflix.

Mr. Weinstein said in a statement, “I think many of us, myself included, have our own ideas of how everything unfolded that night. This portrayal of the events that took place that night is moving to say the very least. I anticipate audiences will be as captivated as I was from the beginning to the end, and I’m extremely proud as an American citizen to play a role in making sure this stunning portrayal of very recent American history is available in as many homes as possible.”

For the National Geographic Channel, majority-owned by News Corporation, the film is a marketing opportunity — a reason for people who would otherwise never look for the channel on their cable lineup to look it up. Buying the TV rights to the film also makes a statement about the channel’s foray into scripted programming. Early next year it will show a film about the killing of Abraham Lincoln.

When asked if he thought the timing of the election would benefit the film, Mr. Owens said, “I think we will benefit by being first to the market,” by beating “Zero Dark Thirty.”

“We saw the success that ’60 Minutes’ had,” he said, referring to the newsmagazine’s hourlong interview with a former Navy SEAL about the bin Laden raid in September, which drew 12.3 million viewers. Further, he said, “we’re all mindful of the book that’s been a best-seller the last four weeks,” referring to “No Easy Day,” the same SEAL’s published account of the raid.

About Marc Brentwood

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