Manhunt, a documentary based on a book of the same name by Peter Bergen, aired on HBO Wednesday evening, the two-year anniversary of bin Laden’s death. Kathryn Bigelow‘s Zero Dark Thirty, premiered in New York and L.A. on December 19, 2012, and expanded wide on January 11.
One is a documentary. One is a work of fiction “based on real events”. There is no reason to compare the two, yet people still are. Maybe it was because of all the controversy surrounding Zero Dark Thirty‘s portrayal of torture (a non-debate, in my opinion), but Mark Boal‘s reportage and extensive research of the hunt for Osama bin Laden has gone largely unnoticed. People seem confused by the idea of researching a real-life event and then applying a dramatic license to the story by compiling characters and compressing the timeframe of events.
Gathering intelligence and the work CIA analysts do is a slow process. They get in bits and pieces of information slowly, one piece is missing here, so they wait for some new piece of information to fill in the gap, so they can begin to build a larger picture of what is going on. Interesting and important work, but slow-moving. It makes sense Boal would use dramatic elements to heighten tension. Even with this added effect, he was worried audiences wouldn’t understand the movie because of the dense amount of information being thrown at them and the movie’s representation of the office work of the analysts.
“Kathryn and I were both worried about losing people in the first whatever it is until the raid…the first hour something. We were always saying, ‘God, if we can just get people to sit there until the raid, we’ll be good,'” Boal said at a Writers Guild Foundation Q&A session about the script.
Even if some of the CIA tracking and sleuthing was dramatized for movie momentum, it seems ZDT got one thing right: the character of Maya. Boal has said there was a woman tracking the courier lead and she was forward-deployed, but won’t say much more beyond those facts.
According to a February Esquire interview with the Navy SEAL who shot Bin Laden (the article’s authenticity has been questioned), he tells us this about the evening of the raid, once they brought bin Laden’s body back to Afghanistan to the base. “While they were still checking the body, I brought the agency woman over. We looked down and I asked, ‘Is that your guy?’ She was crying.”
The Shooter interviewed by Esquire called the Maya character “awesome”. “They made her a tough woman, which she is.”
Speaking of women, the documentary Manhunt mostly focuses on the teams of female analysts who started focusing on bin Laden as early as 1995 and who were part of the final chapter in tracking Bin Laden.
“I saw her more as a compilation of some of the original al-Qaeda analysts — and maybe some of the second generation that I was part of,” Nada Bakos, a former CIA analyst featured in the documentary, said.
As opposed to Zero Dark Thirty, which covers the time between 9/11 and the raid on May 1, 2011, Manhunt covers a longer span of time. It starts around 1995, when the dots started to be connected and the CIA realized Bin Laden was either funding different terrorist groups or starting a new one.
Cindy Storer, one of the analysts who started working on Bin Laden in ’95, says the group of women were often called “obsessed crusaders” and “over emotional”.
The doc spends almost the first hour on pre-9/11 information and tracking. The events after 9/11 actually seem more interesting and inherently dramatic, but are slightly glossed over in an effort to wrap up the story.
For instance, it explains how they found out Bin Laden’s courier was an important figure, but doesn’t explain how the CIA found the courier’s true name or what methods they used to track the courier to Bin Laden’s compound.
With the controversy around the torture techniques depicted in Zero Dark Thirty, Manhunt doesn’t alight on the subject for long. It explains the CIA received permission to use enhanced techniques, of which there were twelve, one of which was waterboarding. It was interesting how Manhunt cut one CIA officer‘s explanation about how often the techniques were used in between a FBI agent‘s explanation about how once he found out this was going on, he pulled his guys out of the situation.
During an enhanced interrogation, there were interrogators and debriefers. The debriefers were a field version of an analyst, who would step in and begin to question the person after they gave in during the interrogator’s turn.
Once the CIA began to learn information more rapidly due to the new interrogation techniques, they started moving analysts over to be targeters. Targeters focused on gathering information on target–one al-Qaeda person–at a time. When Bakos was targeting Zarqawi, she said she would think of him 24/7.
Not unlike Maya in Zero Dark Thirty, because the targeters had such a wealth of knowledge on an individual, the CIA started sending them into war zones and integrating them with elite military units.
One of these targeters, Jennifer Matthews, had been working on Bin Laden for 15 years. She was forward deployed to be chief of base in Khost, Afghanistan. Some CIA members tracked the courier lead, but there were other theories and leads which they thought could lead to Bin Laden.
Matthews was the advocate for one such lead, involving a Jordanian doctor who was inside al-Qaeda. A meeting was set up in Khost, at Camp Chapman, so al-Balawi could share his information. al-Balawi was in fact a double agent, loyal to Islamic terrorists, and was wearing a suicide vest when he entered the base. He killed seven CIA officers, including Matthews.
While Manhunt tried to cover all these key events, it’s easy to see why it’s hard to compress the history of this intelligence search down to a two hour, or two and a half hour in case of Zero Dark Thirty, account.
In terms of the broad strokes of the events, both fiction and documentary seem to get it right. If one really wishes to delve in every nook and cranny of the hunt, old-fashioned reading may be the best bet. (Joby Warrick wrote a whole book on the Khost suicide bombing alone, Triple Agent.)
- After bin Laden documentary premiere, CIA heroine remains elusive (foreignpolicy.com)