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 of Tom Cruise’s Top Gun, which had caused a recruiting boost a few years before.

Written by a former SEAL Team Six 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

Charlie Sheen in "Navy Seals"
Charlie Sheen in Navy SEALs. (Orion Pictures)

In the film, a small element of Navy SEALs goes after a terrorist leader and his cell, who are responsible for the killing of U.S. servicemembers.

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.

Navy Seals movie
Navy “SEALs” (Orion Pictures)

“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 Six.

“That was and is certainly not the average. So you’ve got a whole generation of people who watched the movie thinking SEALs are a bunch of chest-beating cowboys, and that has definitely impacted our image to the outside. People, including some Team guys, think that actual Charlie Sheens exist in the community,” the former SEAL officer added.

The close-quarters combat depicted in the film “is dangerous and unrealistic,” especially the firing from the hip it depicts, which would be “a huge no-go” during hostage rescues, the former SEAL officer added.

Some elements of the movie are true to life. A free-fall parachuting scene was “pretty accurate,” the retired officer said.

“They go through the appropriate pre-jump final checks (although a thorough check is done on the ground), and then the guy who gets a malfunction goes through the correct procedure (cut away the main chute before pulling the reserve cord),” the former SEAL officer added.

Not-so-special Operations

Navy SEALs with AN/PAQ-1 laser M14 rifle
Navy SEALs with an M14 rifle, left, and an AN/PAQ-1 laser target designator, right, during an amphibious demonstration in 1988. (National Museum of U.S. Navy)

On the whole, however, the movie depicts a level of action that a non-SEAL Team Six member likely wouldn’t see even in 20 years of service, the retired operator said.

“It’s a recruitment movie, so you want to show people not what the daily stuff is like — you know, [physical training], admin chores, cleaning weapons, picking up brass — but what the cool, high-speed missions you only get to do a few times in your career” are like, depending on which SEAL Team you’re part of, the retired operator added. “But I have to say the hair is on point!”

In the years since, the film became a go-to reference for what other special operations units claimed was a broken Navy SEAL culture that takes the “special” in special operations too seriously.

That reputation has been bolstered by misconduct by SEALs and scandals in the SEAL community in recent years. Naval Special Warfare is still grappling with that as it prepares for a new role in an era of renewed great-power competition.


This article was written by Stavros Atlamazoglou and originally published on the Insider.