In 1990, a military action movie about a not-very-well-known special-operations unit came out.
Starring Charlie Sheen, “Navy Seals” was another attempt by the Navy to attract recruits following the release Tom Cruise’s “Top Gun,” which had caused a recruiting boost a few years before.
Written by a former SEAL Team 6 operator, the film about the Navy’s special-operations troops was full of action and coolness, including direct-action raids, hostage-rescue operations, free-fall parachuting, combat diving from a submarine, and underwater fighting.
Despite its relative success, the film isn’t seen very favorably inside the Naval Special Warfare community. Among Navy SEALs, perceptions of the movie range from a widely inaccurate depiction of life in the SEAL Teams to a black mark on the Naval Special Warfare community’s reputation.
“Let’s just say when it comes to how we do things, the movie depicts a wholly different universe from what actually exists in the Teams. It’s good entertainment but bad reality,” a former Navy SEAL officer told Insider.
“That movie probably fooled more people into signing up for the program than anything else. It was our ‘Top Gun’ moment,” a retired SEAL operator said.
A plot full of everything
In the film, a small element of Navy SEALs goes after a terrorist leader and his cell, who are responsible for the killing of US service members.
The terrorists have also gotten ahold of several FIM-92 Stinger shoulder-fired, anti-aircraft missiles and threaten to use them to shoot down passenger airliners and commit other terrorist attacks. That was a realistic threat during the 1980s and 1990s, as international terrorism was becoming more common.
As the film progresses, the Navy SEAL team that Charlie Sheen’s character co-leads conducts increasingly difficult operations in the hunt for the terrorists, culminating in a dramatic escape in the waters off Lebanon.
However, despite its Hollywood-style action and drama, the film does a poor job portraying the realities of the Naval Special Warfare community.
“The movie gives the audience the idea that SEALs are cowboys who do whatever they want whenever they want — that there is no accountability whatsoever and that there’s a mission waiting for you every night,” the former SEAL officer said.
“Fast forward 15-20 years, that might have been the reality, or at least close to reality, for some units, especially at Dam Neck,” the former officer said, referring to Naval Special Warfare Development Group, formerly known as SEAL Team 6.