(On Cable TV, November 2013) Seeing this HBO documentary right after Zero Dark Thirty, I’m most struck by the way the fictional film isn’t nearly as interesting, dramatic or compelling as the real story. Manhunt isn’t much more than talking-head testimonials cleverly intercut by director Greg Barker with stock-ish footage and computer-generated infographics. But the talking heads are largely CIA analysts, case officers, high-level officials and expert journalists, so the true-life espionage drama they paint of the hunt for Osama bin Laden is fascinating. Manhunt starts by explaining that a group of CIA analysts (mostly women, hence “The Sisterhood”) started tracking down bin Laden in the mid-nineties, and their efforts intensified following 9/11. The film acts as a big primer on real-world espionage activities, underlining the mixture of signal interception and street-level human work required to track down bin Laden. While some linkages remain curiously elusive (I blame operational security), there are fascinating stories built in the narrative, including the fantastic almost-buried story of how al Quaeda consciously mounted an offensive operation against the CIA, killing a number of Agency operatives at Camp Chapman through a triple-agent. While Zero Dark Thirty does portray the same event, Manhunt does so in a more fascinating way, and ends up being far more effective in two hours than the fictional film’s nearly-three-hour running length. Nearly everyone interviewed for the film leaves us wanting more; in particular, people like Nada Bakos, Marty Martin, and Cindy Storer (who apparently wrote the infamous “Bin Ladin Determined To Strike in US” memo) seem endlessly fascinating: enthusiastic, reflective, knowledgeable and often funny. They bring a human face to a lengthy collective effort, and do so far more effectively than the fictional film. This being HBO, the film isn’t blind to the ethical implications of targeting an individual for termination –it ends on a fairly somber note far away from triumphalism: Sure, the man is dead and the symbolism is powerful, but the ideas live on. While Manhunt is worth seeing on its own, it becomes essential viewing for anyone who has seen Zero Dark Thirty.
(On Cable TV, November 2013) Given the acclaim that Zero Dark Thirty received upon release (all the way up to Oscar nominations) and the interest in its premise, I frankly expected more than I got from the film. Telling the story of the hunt for Osama bin Laden seemed essential given his decade-long bogeyman stature in the American psyche… but who expected a film about such a gripping subject to be, well, so dull? Clocking in at a near-oppressive two-and-a-half-hour, Zero Dark Thirty takes forever to tell its story, underplaying some moments (such as the strike against CIA employees at Camp Chapman) while letting others take place in near-real time. The pacing is tepid, and the basic tools of the film (cinematography, dialogue, direction) aren’t all that compelling either: For all the good that I think of her films up to and including The Hurt Locker, director Kathryn Bigelow’s work here seems more average than anything else, and does little to fight against the heaviness of the rest of the film. Fortunately, the performances are quite good: Jessica Chastain is splendid as the personification of the “Sisterhood” of CIA analysts that doggedly pursued bin Laden for more than a decade, while Jason Clarke is curiously compelling as a CIA interrogator. As far as the gulf between fiction and reality is concerned, a look at the HBO documentary Manhunt should help clear up the historical liberties taken by Zero Dark Thirty –although viewers should be forewarned that Manhunt is considerably crisper and more compelling than its fictional counterpart.