Guaranteed to ratchet up the critical chatter surrounding the CIA and “enhanced interrogation,” “Manhunt” also puts a very human face on the nearly 20-year hunt for Osama bin Laden, starring a thoroughly sympathetic contingent of female analysts who — despite being scapegoated after 9/11 — continued the chase to its world-shaking conclusion. This stylish, coherent rendering of a complex story will likely be branded as the real-life “Zero Dark Thirty” and may flourish accordingly, but its real exposure will come through HBO.
Ironically enough, what may enhance the buzz around Greg Barker’s atmospheric and often entrancing docu is that it says outright what “Zero Dark Thirty” merely implies about torture: namely, that it worked. Some of the officers Barker interviews draw a direct line between extreme measures taken by the CIA and the knowledge that led to bin Laden’s lair in Abbottabad, Pakistan, where he was killed by Navy SEALS on May 2, 2011.
Jose Rodriguez, onetime chief of the CIA’s Counterterrorism Center and one of Barker’s principal interviewees, has become the agency’s most prominent torture apologist, and the film takes what he says purely at face value. Rodriguez and agency vet Marty Martin, who recruited local agents during the hunt for bin Laden and is easily the most colorful subject here, also defends enhanced interrogation, despite the Senate Intelligence Committee’s conclusion that torture did not elicit the revelations about bin Laden’s courier that ultimately led to bin Laden himself (the same link at the center of the controversy over “Zero Dark Thirty”).
Perhaps the most interesting moment in “Manhunt” comes when Nada Bakos, one of several female analysts who proved instrumental in the search for bin Laden and who was on the ground in Iraq, is asked how and when Hassan Ghul, a bin Laden emissary, revealed the name of the courier. She smiles, almost Cheshire Cat-like, and says the name came up during a “debriefing” in Iraqi Kurdistan, thus prompting the question of whether Ghul was even in American hands when the name came out, and what exactly “debriefing” means.
“Manhunt” is dense with information and revelations, and Barker (director of the splendid docus “Sergio” and “Koran by Heart”) interweaves his archival footage, Philip Sheppard’s moody music and contrasting lighting to keep the film’s sensibility nimble and shifting. In the film’s most playful sequence, the byzantine quality of an evolving CIA investigation is illuminated by former acting CIA director John McLaughlin, who uses four half-dollar coins and some deft sleight-of-hand to show how slippery the case became.
As explained by analyst Cindy Storer, who had been tracking bin Laden since the early ’90s, few at the top listened when it was made clear what a threat bin Laden was to the United States, and then still wanted to know why Storer and her colleagues hadn’t connected the dots. “Maybe because the whole page was black?” she says, not really laughing.
Tech credits are tops, especially Joe Bini’s editing.