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Sundance Review: 'Manhunt' examines the search for Osama Bin Laden
HBO doc features many of the analysts on Bin Laden's tail
It was Saturation Sunday at Sundance's MARC Theater as the film festival saw the premieres of a pair of documentaries with the potential to have viewers shrugging at oft-repeated stories.
I've already reviewed Evan Leong's "Linsanity," which adds Jeremy Lin's voice to an underdog story most sports fans hear ad nauseaum last spring.
Before seeing "Linsanity," I caught Greg Barker's US Documentary Competition entry "Manhunt," which follows the Oscar nominated hit "Zero Dark Thirty" (my favorite theatrical release of 2012) and the NatGeo telefilm "Seal Team Six" among recent depictions of the search for and killing of Osama bin Laden.
Both feature-length projects have been preceded by disagreements and controversy, which is a logical factor of a story in which some of the facts are classified, some of the facts are open to interpretation and many of the facts are coming courtesy of variably reliable sources. It's an informational quagmire out there and it's hard to get much consistency.
While "Manhunt," "Zero Dark Thirty" and "Seal Team Six" have some overlap, they have somewhat different main focuses, which has prevented Osama bin Laden fatigue from fully settling in. "Seal Team Six," which I'm not actually suggesting you watch, is mostly about the raid on Abbottabad that got Bin Laden. "Zero Dark Thirty" is about the raid, but also the intelligence gathering that led to the raid. And "Manhunt" is about the process that led to the intelligence gathering that led to the raid, but it only gets up to the "Zero Dark Thirty" intelligence gathering in its last quarter and it never gets to the raid at all.
That's my way of saying that while "Manhunt" is, indeed, the latest incarnation of a narrative you've heard before, Barker has a different angle on the story and a different set of sources. That angle and those sources caused me to be simultaneously appreciative and wary of "Manhunt," though I was never uninterested.
More after the break...
"Manhunt" begins, as one might expect, with the night of May 1, 2011. After all, there's really no point in being coy about the end of things. President Obama's going to take the podium and he's going to announce that we got Osama Bin Laden. We see footage of the excitement of that night, but we also see the way the news impacts several people who seem to be less exuberant.
Those people are the CIA analysts and operatives who put two decades into not just the climactic action in Abbottabad, but also into initially recognizing Bin Laden as a source of terror funding, identifying his operation as Al-Qaeda, tying Al-Qaeda to a series of worldwide attacks, fleshing out the organization's structure and steadily targeting and dismantling much of it. "Zero Dark Thirty" and "Seal Team Six" set up Bin Laden's death as the destination to a long journey. "Manhunt" sees it as one line in a connected tapestry, more symbolically important than other operations, but only one part of a bigger strategic puzzle. While I may find "Zero Dark Thirty" to be a greater cinematic achievement, I find "Manhunt" a more likely interpretation of events in terms of perspective.
And when it comes to perspective, "Manhunt" has lined up a powerhouse talking head team, with a welcome emphasis on The Sisterhood, the women who led the CIA's team of analysts, specializing in pattern recognition, which all involved compare to a magic trick, seeing invisible connections between things. These women were the heart of the Alec Station task force that identified Al-Qaeda as a threat and repeatedly warned government officials that Bin Laden was planning a major attack, pre-9/11.
Knowing the operational secrecy within the CIA, it's astounding to see these analysts, as well as case officers like the majestically cocky Marty Martin, talking on-camera, using their real names and being this frank.
Or are they being frank? While the CIA had no official involvement with "Manhunt," the availability of all of these agency figures guarantees that the CIA, through individuals rather than the institution, controls the information flow in Barker's documentary. As a result, this becomes a version of the story that's so CIA-slanted that verges on propagandistic at times. The poor CIA analysts became scapegoats for politicians after 9/11. The CIA was also scapegoated by the 9/11 Commission, even though all of the commission's recommendations had already been implemented.
And don't even get me started on torture! No matter what you've heard, the CIA figures in "Manhunt" want to emphasize that when it came to enhanced interrogation techniques, they may have engaged in the occasional slap or shove and they may have waterboarded, but not much and it never yielded much actionable information. Yup. That's what the CIA says. Or at least what they say here. In contrast, an FBI agent expresses some disgust at what he saw the CIA do, but he's mostly marginalized.
"Manhunt" may be CIA propaganda, but it's also feminist CIA propaganda. So there's that. The members of The Sisterhood clearly take us through as much of the step-by-step process as could be depicted in a doc of this length -- illustrated by black-marketed connections on a dry-erase board -- and intriguingly explain the way the Alec Station group blurred the boundaries between the CIA's traditional dueling analytic and operational cultures.
That blurring is where things began in "Zero Dark Thirty" and there's definitely some fun to be had in trying to guess which real-life figures were molded into which "ZDT" characters. Some of the matches are obvious, while others will be speculation.
"Manhunt" is one of a slew of HBO docs at this year's Festival. They're having a good Sundance and this doc fills a valuable and informative space in the Osama Bin Laden conversation. As I just noted on Twitter, this is yet another film that I'm grading between a B- and a B+. I can't get past the feeling of propaganda and the slight warping of this POV, but I'd definitely recommend "Manhunt" for its different spin on this story.
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