For a classified mission, executed in secret, and monumentally changing the face of the war of terror, there is an awful lot of public knowledge about the the hunt for and killing of Osama Bin Laden. Books, magazine articles and more have proliferated at a steady pace, and then of course there’s Kathryn Bigelow‘s “Zero Dark Thirty,” a feature film account of the intensive search for the terrorist leader all the way up the raid on the compound in Abbottabad. That film gave a narrative to the decades long investigation, involving dozens of people, multiple branches of government, false leads and more, and turned into a compelling piece of historical cinema. As such, it takes some liberties for dramatic purposes, but the basic arc is there, however for those looking for an account from those who were actually involved, “Manhunt: The Inside Story Of The Hunt For Bin Laden” doesn’t quite live up the comprehensive documentary the title suggests.
But to give credit where credit is due, director Greg Barker collects a fantastic array of talking heads, including analysts who tracked Bin Laden since before 9/11, operatives and agents who oversaw World Wide Attack Matrix, the counter-terror operation to dismantle Al-Qaeda. And the context the filmmakers’ provide is impeccable, documenting the rise of Bin Laden from a nobody, threatening war against America, to the feared head of a worldwide terror organization, operating in 60 countries. It’s rather astonishing to see footage of journalist Peter Bergen‘s 1-on-1, on camera interview with Bin Laden in 1997, and then to hear him say that at the time, “it didn’t really get any play.” The reason was that, Bin Laden hadn’t started yet to unleash the wave of attacks that would presage 9/11, but of course, there were those inside the CIA who saw it coming. But nobody was listening.
It’s the core group of analysts — almost entirely women — that Barker is rightly fascinated with in “Manhunt.” While Bigelow’s film is pitched through Maya — a figure we have been told is real, and stuck with the search for decades — what emerges in “Manhunt” is a more complex portrait, with a core team operating almost invisibly within the CIA. The structure of the intelligence organization rather mindbogglingly (at least in retrospect) kept analytic and operational information separated, meaning that those sifting through clues wouldn’t know what agents were up to in the field and vice versa. Moreover, analytic work simply wasn’t taken very seriously until it was too late. In one of the most jaw-dropping sequences from “Manhunt,” we are showed memo after memo sent to the highest levels of government right up until the month preceding 9/11, giving dire warnings of an imminent strike. For all intents and purposes, it was ignored. But of course, blame needed to be found, and the analysts were the first ones to be brought before committees and investigated, while the inefficient bureaucracy churned on.
And indeed, the differing opinions, approaches and more between government officials likely contributed to the reason it took another ten years after 9/11 to finally track down and kill Bin Laden. And while, politicians raised hell when “Zero Dark Thirty” hit theaters, crying foul over the depiction of enhanced interrogation — torture — the bottom line is that it was used. The question is how effective it was. Jose Rodriguez, who ran the CIA’s counter-terrorism center, swears by the techniques, as does Marty Martin, who ran field operations. While more liberal types may bristle at their unequivocal support of the interrogation techniques — Rodriguez even claims that of the approved methods, most of them were “pretty wimpy stuff” — one does have to wrestle with the notion that some key information was obtained this way (though an FBI agent states that traditional interrogations still yielded highly valuable results). But at what cost was all of this? Curiously, there’s no mention of atrocities such as Abu Gharaib from anyone in the film, or how misguided involvement in Iraq has only furthered the cause for fundamentalists targeting America. But Gen. Stanley McChrystal‘s assessment comes close, and he plainly states, that we’re yet to even understand why America has spurred this kind of animosity from our enemies: “If you don’t understand why they’re doing it, it’s very difficult to stop [attacks]. We don’t speak the language enough, we don’t understand the culture enough, we haven’t taken the time to not to be blind, deaf and dumb about areas of the world that matter to us.”
“Manhunt” should certainly be applauded for tackling the moral and ethical sides of the operation in addition to the procedural (including some rather fascinating and appalling Al-Qaeda propaganda videos), as it gives the entire saga the richness and nuance that it needs to be told properly. But that said, Barker tries to be both comprehensive and lean but comes up short. For a film subtitled ‘The Inside Story Of The Hunt For Bin Laden,’ that the documentary essentially follows the story up until the identity of The Courier, while skipping the raid entirely and fast-forwarding to Barack Obama announcing the completion of the mission on live television, is a bit misguided. Even this would be forgiven if the tale was cleanly told, but Barker’s insider interviews come at the expense of momentum, and often it isn’t clear how the various figures discovered, arrested and found are important in the overall search. So consider this a side order to “Zero Dark Thirty,” one that fills in some of the gaps, and provides undramatized, sober testimony from those that were there. But on its own, “Manhunt” doesn’t quite get the target. [B-]
“Manhunt” airs tonight on HBO at 8 PM.