How many films about the search for and killing of Osama bin Laden can the market bear? The answer appears to be three — a bad one, a good one and now, a messy but provocative one.
National Geographic Channel's docudrama "Seal Team Six" was first out of the Bin Laden box, although its combo of histrionic drama and sketchy intel made for a better headline than film. Kathryn Bigelow's "Zero Dark Thirty," on the other hand, provided a master class in how to turn a crowded, complicated, highly emotional series of events into a beautifully constructed, if factually controversial, story.
So even though there is danger of overload, the timing is just right for "Manhunt," which premieres Wednesday on HBO. Greg Barker's straight-up documentary is about the real women and men who painstakingly gathered the intelligence that finally led to Bin Laden's death. As the opening text states plainly, the raid on the compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan, took 40 minutes, the search for Bin Laden took 20 years.
Based on the book by Peter Bergen, "Manhunt" opens by addressing some of the questions "Zero Dark Thirty" — and, to a certain extent, Showtime's "Homeland" — have raised by choosing obsessive female analysts as their protagonist. In a segment called "The Sisterhood," Barker introduces us to some of the women upon whom those characters could be based: Susan Hasler, Cindy Storer, Nada Bakos, Barbara Sude and, in absentia, Jennifer Matthews, who was eventually killed in the bombing of a base in Khost, Afghanistan (an event dramatized in "Zero Dark Thirty.")
Re-creating their use of whiteboards, link charts and pattern analysis, these women describe how in the early '90s they began tracking a new kind of terrorist organization. Their growing insistence that this group and its leader posed a real threat to the U.S. was initially dismissed by their superiors; Storer was once told, in a performance review, that she was focusing too much on Bin Laden.
Bin Laden soon confirmed their suspicions by declaring war on the United States, first through an Arab newspaper and then, in 1997, to Bergen on CNN. That too was ignored, as were subsequent CIA's warnings, even as Al Qaeda began acting on its threats around the world.
Barker did not interview anyone on the receiving end of these increasingly insistent memos so the reasons given are oddly vague — there was not enough concrete detail, so no action was taken. Discussions of torture are likewise kept oblique. Marty Miller, who oversaw the CIA's search for Bin Laden, and CIA case officer Jose Rodriguez simply argue that they did what they had to do.
Bogged down at times by moody re-creations (often unforgivably accompanied by the strains of a muted trumpet) and endless footage of Bin Laden, "Manhunt" is not a definitive telling either. Indeed, its strength lies in its awareness that there is no way to completely tell this particular story.
But it does provide something of an antidote to the breathless churn favored by screenwriters. Early on, Sude describes how, on 9/11, her CIA office was evacuated after the attacks except for counter-terrorism forces. She told her people that if they wanted to leave, she would cover for them. Everyone stayed.
That is one sort of heroism. Another is the sheer doggedness of determined professionals slogging, for years, toward a breakthrough that could, as in the case of Khost, be a deadly mistake. And then sorting through the ashes to begin again.
When: 8 p.m. Wednesday
Rating: TV-14 (may be unsuitable for children under the age of 14)