Manhunt

Manhunt debuts tonight at 8 p.m. Eastern on HBO.

The key thing about Manhunt: The Search For Bin Laden is the subtitle. It’s almost all about the search. Manhunt, which was directed by Greg Barker (whose other credits include such excellent HBO documentaries as Koran By Heart and Sergio) and is based on a book by the reporter Peter Bergen (who appears as one of the talking-head experts and witnesses), takes as its heroes the same kind of people who were the heroes of Kathryn Bigelow’s Zero Dark Thirty: The intelligence wonks who, putting together tiny, incremental bits of information and constantly readjusting their sense of what was going on as the picture kept changing, identified Osama bin Laden as a major player in international terrorism before anyone in the West had heard the name “Al Qaeda.” They’re also the people who, in this telling, tried to warn the country, and got nothing but grief for it.

Although Manhunt ends with President Obama's televised announcement of the killing of Bin Laden, followed by people cheering in the streets, the film doesn’t build to a big, exciting climax—the big gundown all that intelligence gathering made possible, with Jessica Chastain ambiguously weeping, so that we’ll know we’re seeing something tonier than a payback melodrama. One of the intelligence analysts does weep on-camera. But there’s nothing ambiguous about it. Cindy Storer, who began tracking bin Laden’s activities in 1995, talks about how laborious and difficult her work is: Day after day, she and colleagues collate meetings and conversations and transactions and bits of chatter, trying to make sense of it all, and then “People say, why don’t you connect the dots? Well, because the whole page is black!”

Storer is one of the people we heard about in the weeks after September 11, 2001, who were said to have been getting funny looks and harshing the buzz of the newly sworn-in Bush administration because they were running around, in the words of Richard Clarke, with their “hair on fire,” warning about an imminent attack by Al Qaeda, just when their new bosses, with their self-described policy of “A.B.C.” (“Anything But Clinton”) were dismissing the idea that Al Qaeda was a threat. Looking back on it now, Storer cites the messages that Al Qaeda was putting out then, in propaganda videos and interviews, and lists the reasons, among them “a religious obligation to warn their enemy,” why “it made complete sense that they meant what they said.” All of that went into the famous Presidential briefing memo form August 6, headlined “Bin Laden Determined To Strike In US” that the vacationing President Bush blew off with the words “All right, you’ve covered your ass,” and which Storer’s boss, John McLaughlin, now concedes might, “with the benefit of hindsight,” leave one with the impression that Bin Laden might possibly have been determined to strike in the U.S. After the 9/11 attacks, the administration and its allies in Congress divided their time between insisting that there was nothing they could have done to prevent them and pillorying the intelligence people who had been unable to convince them there was something to be prevented. A single, very pissed-off-looking tear slides down Storer’s face as she says, “You didn’t help us at all, and now you’re going to blame us for having tried!?”

The opening section of Manhunt, featuring Storer and other members of a “sisterhood” of mostly female intelligence analysts, joins The Americans and The Bletchley Circle in making an argument that has, surprisingly but not unconvincingly, threaded its way through the concluding months of this TV season—that woman are better at the spy game than men. One analyst, Nada Bakos, spells it out: “We have patience and perseverance, and we’re not always looking for the sexy payoff immediately.” Once the country is officially at war, these wonks recede to the margins, and the cowboys roll in. The makers of Zero Dark Thirty have insisted that they never intended to make a movie that defends torture, but the kind of people they were portraying care about ends over means and just go about their business, without worrying about ethical niceties. That’s a well-worn trope of hard-boiled action fiction, but to judge from the actual human beings interviewed here, there’s not a lot of truth to it.

The witnesses who engaged in “advanced interrogation techniques” or approve of their use—including a big-swinging-dick type who refers to himself as a “gangsta” and calls Khalid Sheikh Mohammed Al Qaeda’s “mack daddy”—make their case for having had to make the tough calls, but in a cornered, defensive way that says at least as much as their words do. The most gung-ho talks about “slapping” people and grabbing them by their lapels to pull them closer; “It may be unpleasant, it’s an attention grabber, but it’s not torture.” Waterboarding, on the other hand—there’s a pretty strong consensus that it’s torture. The man doesn’t exactly disagree, but he does take exception to all those reports that Mohammed was waterboarded 183 times. In a “give me a break” tone of voice, he snorts that the number 183 merely refers to the “pourings of water” during his interrogation.

Leaving aside the fact that defenders of torture only make themselves look ridiculous when they insist on their right to redefine what torture is, the debate over whether it’s a necessary tool for saving lives isn’t going away any time soon. Manhunt is more provocative when it suggests the real problem with our national defense is too much transparency—or, at least, that we have just enough accountability and transparency to make sure the important calls get made by the wrong people, those who are more interested in getting their faces on TV than in knowing what they’re talking about. “Shock and awe does not end wars on terrorism,” says one analyst, “it only creates new terrorism. Wars on terror should be fought under the radar.” (Unfortunately, she concedes, successful but underpublicized “counterterrorist operations,” as opposed to big, flashy wars that can be televised on CNN, “are, by their nature, not very satisfying to a frightened public.”)

Some of the witnesses here lament the fact that the American public, as a whole, still has no idea why people like Bin Laden hate them. This is the kind of thing that could lead to public denunciations, firings, and calls for groveling apologies when people like Susan Sontag went there right after 9/11. One of the people saying it now, on-camera, is General Stanley McChrystal, former commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan, who was relieved of duty in 2010 after an article in Rolling Stone depicted him as talking shit about his commanders in the White House. Maybe Rolling Stone caught him on a bad day, or HBO caught him on a good one, because here he’s eloquent and thoughtful and talks nothing but pained good sense. He talks about the importance of not being “blind, deaf, and dumb in areas of the world that matter to us,” and says of those who would attack America, “If you don’t understand why they’re doing it, it’s very difficult to stop them.” HBO, to its great credit, continues to reserve space on its schedule for doing its bit to promote and improve understanding.