Zero Dark Thirty is a powerful film from director Kathryn Bigelow. So powerful, in fact, that any other attempt to tell the story of how Osama bin Laden was eventually brought down feels somewhat extraneous. At least that was my impression before watching HBO’s provocative Manhunt: The Search for Bin Laden, an interesting documentary that helps the viewer connect the dots on the international manhunt for the man chiefly responsible for the 9/11 terrorist attacks.
What’s most interesting about the story is what happened on the global scale in the years preceding 9/11. Bin Laden, the person who helped found al-Qaida, was on the radar screens of American analysts for quite some time. The dots were starting to connect, if the documentary’s subjects are to be believed, and yet there seemed to be a disruption in the intelligence system resulting in the powers-that-be either not noticing the reports or not respecting/trusting the reports. Bin Laden became the ultimate prize for a group of analysts, and yet their efforts did not materialize in his capture before the terrorist attacks. After 9/11, there apparently was much finger pointing and political infighting on who dropped the ball on this obvious threat.
Manhunt adds much real-world context for the fictional elements of Zero Dark Thirty. Although it’s unable to garner equal praise.
Bigelow’s film created a complicated series of connections, much like the oil business described in Syriana, and yet the difficulty of following the plot became the central theme of the entire movie. Worldwide espionage, highly questionable interrogation techniques, trusting fixers in foreign countries, difficult-to-comprehend intelligence reports create an environment of second guessing, and having that environment come to life on film is wholly appropriate. Whereas Zero Dark Thirty embraces the complications of telling this nonlinear story, Manhunt seems to water down the proceedings and focus too much on the pre-9/11 shoulda, coulda, woulda mentality of the analysts.
That said, the subjects in the film, many of them dedicated CIA analysts who were convinced of bin Laden’s threat level, have remarkable stories to tell. These women still have obvious frustrations over their inability to sound the alarm. Their efforts were unbelievably ambitious and helped further the intelligence community’s understanding (and acknowledgment) of the al-Qaida network.
The second half of the film looks at the blame game that followed the terrorist attacks and the ambivalence these female analysts felt over their quest to find bin Laden before any potential catastrophe. This second half is still quality filmmaking, but it’s also the part where Bigelow’s film could take over.
The controversial policies of the Bush administration and the ultimate finding of bin Laden during the Obama administration are too much exposition for a film that also looks at the fraught intelligence community in the 1990s. Two documentaries, with more details, would have been preferred. As it stands, Manhunt is a complement to Zero Dark Thirty, but it’s unable to overtake it as a film that documents the largest news story of the past two decades.
By John Soltes / Publisher / John@HollywoodSoapbox.com
Manhunt: The Search for Bin Laden
Directed by Greg Barker
Based on the book by Peter Bergen
Running time: 90 minutes