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By Mark Bell | January 22, 2013

Whether appearing on the festival circuit with Zero Dark Thirty still in theaters will hurt or help Manhunt‘s critical and financial prospects remains to be seen but, considering it was financed by HBO Films, one suspects it will do just fine for itself. Greg Barker’s nonfiction corollary to Kathryn Bigelow’s dramatization of the hunt for Osama bin Laden and the agents behind it distinguishes itself almost instantly by covering the pre-9/11 period elided by that film; it also takes President Obama’s initial declaration that “the American people do not see their work, nor know their names” as a catalytic challenge. It’s notable for being partially told from the perspective of the female CIA analysts whose ignored reports on the terrorist leader’s plan of attack were made famous by the September 11 Commission, not to mention its inclusion of FBI/CIA crosstalk on the efficacy of torture that’s sure to send Glen Greenwald into a tizzy once he’s read the early reviews.

Beyond that, it’s telling that some of this documentary’s most compelling segments are made up of pre-existing footage: the interview Peter Arnett conducted with bin Laden in 1997 (which includes the haunting line “We love this kind of death more than you love life”), for instance, as well as a sampling of al-Qaeda propaganda. (These also reveal, as Lincoln did, that the film’s larger-than-life subject had a decidedly unimposing voice.) Between an early barrage of intertitles and excessive close-ups of a black marker making its way across a dry-erase board as an operative connects the proverbial dots, Manhunt is also hurt by being stylized to the point of obtrusiveness. Barker’s subject matter is fascinating on its own, and the impulse to dress it up so much is ultimately detrimental.

Barker’s best decision, then, is including a metaphor made by a former CIA official that likens intelligence-gathering to watching sleight of hand: trying to make sense of an incomplete picture, mentally filling in the gaps left by what’s in front of your eyes. This, more than any other aspect of Manhunt, serves to explain how a two-decade search could slowly lead to – and end in – a forty-minute raid on a compound hidden in plain sight.

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