Manhunt might be billed as the counterpoint, or indeed antidote, to Zero Dark Thirty or Homeland, in the scripts and iconography of which a single (in both senses of the word) beautiful American woman, obsessed with her task, either because she's the best or bipolar or both, tries to defeat a 21st Century Fu Manchu, head of a monstrous third-world army about to swallow up America and its 'freedom they hate'.
Made for HBO by Greg Barker, based on Peter Bergen's book, and featuring Bergen among its interviewees, Manhunt tells the story of the decade-long search for Osama bin Laden in different terms, a manhunt against a small gang of criminals, spearheaded by 'the Sisterhood', a team of women analysts more like soccer moms than secret agents. From that premise, the film examines h the contrast between the reality of that hunt, which culminated in the killing of Bin Laden in his compound in Pakistan, and the perception foisted upon the public. It also addresses cogently the entire structure of the so-called 'war on terror', its uses and abuses of torture, and its relations to what might be seen as that war's ultimate aims.
It's a balanced picture, filled with interviews that lay out the moral dilemmas and the practical problems. The most interesting at first are with the members of 'the sisterhood', whose tracking of Al Queda began in the 1990s, and became obsessive, and whose warnings about his plans were largely ignored. In the wake of 9/11, however, with Bin Laden elevated to the levels of a Hitler as worldwide public enemy number 1, their work became more and more important, though they often found themselves in conflict with the agents on the ground. Nada Bakos and Cynthia Storer, tasked with following and tracking Al Queda from afar, are given more depth when set against the agents on the ground, here represented by Marty Martin, who worked the Middle East, and Jose Rodriquez, who ran counter-terrorism at the CIA.
Storer talks about how the women were called 'obsessive', as if that were a female characteristic, before the whole CIA became obsessive. And Bakos, assigned to find Musab al Kawaki, who was finally killed in an airstrike in 2006, explains in plainest terms 'my job was to hunt a person down, to capture or kill. I had to be okay with that.' It was Bakos who provided the key link to the courier, whose tracking finally located Bin Laden.
The contrasts are worthy of an episode of Homeland, though more chilling for their reality. A smug reference to 'black sites' as 'boutique locations' where suspects can be tortured by American proxies, is a chilling reminder of what the reality of intelligence work is like. But the former deputy director of the CIA, John McLaughlin, introduced performing sleight of hand tricks, is unconvincing when he speaks about the CIA feeling 'alone' with their responsibility to prevent another 9/11. When considered in the wake of what that excuse has been used to justify, from domestic surveillance to political repression, he sounds chilling. One of the Sisterhood, Jennifer Matthews, was actually killed in the suicide bombing at Khost, bringing home the reality, and the frustration.
What becomes most clear is how false the Zero Dark Thirty portrayal, and argument, is, and how much domestic politics impeded an early elimination of Bin Laden, during the Clinton years. Zero Dark Thirty's celebration of torture is scoffed at most effectively by Ali Soufan, an agent and interrogator, who points out the intel that finally got Bin Laden came through research by the Sisterhood and more traditional interrogation techniques. It demonstrates how Barker's documentary not only raises questions, but presents them in depth and context, something sorely lacking in most mainstream media. In this context, the absence of reference to the Bush administration, and the early connections between Bin Laden and the US, seems odd, and when President Obama is portrayed announcing Bin Laden's death, he is almost literally seen as a hologram figure, a PR construct worthy of Orwell. Barker includes an interview with General Stanley McChrystal, whose criticisms of the adminstration when he was in command in Afghanistan, which makes the most crucial point, when he says, 'I'm not sure America has made the effort to understand what it is we just went through...the key is why are the enemy the enemy? If you don't understand why they're doing it, it's very difficult to stop it.'
In the larger sense that question it seems to get lost in the rush to action. Philip Mudd, former deputy chief of counter-terrorism sees things more simply: 'There are philosophical debates you can have, but at the end of the day, the question is: Are you gonna move or not? Yes or no? Go or no go? That's it.' If you've watched Zero Dark Thirty, or network news, you know the answer to that one already.