Sundance Journal: ‘Manhunt’

A good documentary should take a subject (usually an obscure or relatively unknown one) and make it engaging for a mainstream audience. ‘Manhunt’ takes a popular and exciting subject – the real-life hunt for Osama bin Laden – and makes it as exciting as a history textbook.

‘Zero Dark Thirty’ told the story of the hunt for bin Laden flawlessly, albeit with some Hollywood trickery here and there. HBO Films’ ‘Manhunt’ doesn’t even get off the ground before it starts dragging. I’ve seen History Channel specials about ancient aliens more thrilling than this. Come on, this is real-life cloak and dagger stuff. On the surface, this is as fascinating as anything out there. However, once the film gets going, it develops into a repetitive lecture.

The documentary starts off interestingly enough. The movie promises to discuss, in-depth, the Sisterhood. This group of female CIA analysts consists of the half-dozen or so people that Jessica Chastain’s composite character in ‘Zero Dark Thirty’ was based on. Learning about them is quite absorbing. We fin dout how women make better analysts, how they reacted during 9/11 when they realized they were so close to preventing it, and how they handled the aftermath of being blamed for it. That’s the good part.

Then the doc becomes unbelievably muddled. Ex-CIA agents, field officers and supervisors appear on screen to tell us about what clandestine activities went into finding bin Laden. We spend most of the time looking at a white board as more and more Al Qaeda faces are added to the power structure. Numerous talking heads drone on and on about the inner workings of the CIA. Most of them cover the same exact material as the person before. It’s pretty soon in the movie when the entire narrative starts treading water.

The filmmakers gloss over the torture controversy and decide not to even touch it. Rather than actually talk much about the specific things that led to bin Laden’s capture, instead the documentary deals in vague generalities. It’s so frustrating because you know that there’s a compelling story inside here.

This was the only movie at Sundance this year that I very nearly fell asleep during. After leaving the theater, most of the press members stood idly by wondering to each other how something like this could’ve been so boring. As I spoke to a colleague of mine, we came to the conclusion that the movie’s structure is too unfocused. The narrative is a repetitive mess. This isn’t taking away anything from those men and women who participated in the real historical victory. The filmmakers just don’t do those events justice.

Rating: ★★☆☆☆

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