The filmmaker behind an Osama bin Laden documentary at the Sundance Film Festival says the debate over the accuracy of Hollywood’s take on the story detracts from the deeper moral questions involved.
Greg Barker, director of “Manhunt: The Search for Bin Laden,” said criticism over Kathryn Bigelow’s Academy Award-nominated “Zero Dark Thirty” is a political issue that’s over-simplifying the matter.
“Zero Dark Thirty” has drawn fire from Washington lawmakers who say the film inaccurately depicts torture as integral in producing leads that led to bin Laden’s death in a Navy SEALs raid in Pakistan in 2011.
“The fact is, what our special operations do is conduct kill-capture operations all the time, and many people die in those,” Barker said. “Maybe that’s what we want as a country, but we have to actually address it and understand it to really know what’s going on. And so I just think that trying to say, well, was it coercive interrogation? I mean, maybe, probably, is my personal opinion, there was an element of that. Was that all of it? Certainly not. Is that what we should focus on? I don’t think so.”
“Manhunt,” debuting on HBO in May, uses extensive interviews with CIA officers, military operatives and others involved in tracking bin Laden as he rose to power calling for jihad against the United States in the 1990s and in the war on terror after the 9/11 attacks in 2001.
Much of the story parallels events dramatized in “Zero Dark Thirty,” starring Jessica Chastain as a CIA analyst named Maya who obsessively pursues bin Laden for years.
Barker and ex-CIA agents interviewed for “Manhunt” said “Zero Dark Thirty” correctly depicts that women in the CIA were at the heart of the bin Laden chase. But it still is a Hollywood distillation made to entertain wide audiences, they said.
“It is entertaining, especially the part about the SEAL raid,” said Nada Bakos, who worked as a CIA analyst and later a targeting officer focusing on Iraq. “I understand they have to condense things down to different characters, but Maya’s definitely a compilation of a lot of different people who worked at the agency and worked on this over the years.”
Marty Martin, a CIA case officer who led the hunt for bin Laden after the 9/11 attacks, said interrogations did not occur the way they are shown in “Zero Dark Thirty.” Asked if torture produced tips that helped find bin Laden, Martin would only say that he believes “enhanced interrogation techniques” were useful.
Martin said he believes such methods have saved hundreds of thousands of lives.
“This is America. We need to have this debate,” Martin said. “If you want to make a decision that 5,000 people can die because you don’t want to make a bad guy feel uncomfortable, that’s a decision we have. But then, you bear that responsibility, and you’ll look in those victims’ relatives’ eyes after the fact. But the fact is, that debate and that discussion needs to occur, and we live in a free society where that needs to happen.”
Ex-CIA analyst Cindy Storer said that right after 9/11, she decided she did not want to be involved in coercive methods, yet she concedes that valuable information resulted.
“It doesn’t mean I didn’t use the information that came from it. It doesn’t mean I don’t respect the people who made the decision to do that,” Storer said. “I know that’s useful. So this black-and-white discussion of, it’s not useful at all, it’s totally useful, it’s ridiculous. It is in the gray.”
Filmmaker Barker said the debate needs to cut deeper than simple for-or-against opinions about torture. Whether from al-Qaeda or some other source, “we’re going to be back in this situation again,” Barker said.
“And there will be people in the shadows making decisions on our behalf, and what I’m hoping to do is kind of shed some light by telling a great story, but also shed some light on what those decisions, how those decisions are reached, and the human dimension of that,” Barker said. “It’s a complex issue, and we’re best looking at it dispassionately, and all of us have a discussion about what this last decade was all about to us.”