Last week, Manhunt, a new documentary, opened the 43rd annual USA Film Festival at the Angelika Film Center in Dallas. Like Kathryn Bigelow's Zero Dark Thirty, it chronicles the CIA's search for Osama bin Laden. But where Bigelow and screenwriter Mark Boal condensed characters and dramatized history, Manhunt director Greg Barker wanted to create a film that would help audiences get to know what the CIA is like and the people involved in the two decades-long search.
"It plays like a thriller or a spy movie, but these are real people," he said, speaking about the film by phone before its Dallas premier.
"A lot of the work is tactile. It's very analog," he said. "They stick pictures and mugshots of bad guys up on walls and they draw lines between them on whiteboards. There's a lot of that in the film because that's how they work, which surprised me."
The entire process took two years, but Barker's extensive research and the work of building relationships with his subjects paid off. The result is a film that explores the CIA's counter terrorism program in a way others haven't.
"Somebody in a position to know saw the film and said, 'This is the most accurate portrayal of CIA culture -- the way we think, the way we work -- that has ever been done in any medium: book, film, whatever. This is what we're really like,'" Barker said.
In many cases, the men and women he interviewed had never spoken publicly about the search, which began in the 1990s, well before the September 11 attack on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.
"Even seasoned reporters from the New York Times or Washington Post never got them to go on the record," he said. "They kind of emerged from the shadows to tell their story, and they did that because they felt it was an important story to tell at this time."
For Barker, there was no better sign that the time was right than the night of the raid on bin Laden's compound in Pakistan. HBO commissioned the movie based on Barker's past work as a broadcast journalist and producer, his work with Frontline, and their own work with him on his 2009 documentary, Sergio, which was shortlisted for an Academy Award.
Manhunt is based on a book by Peter Bergen. But as with any movie, the book was just a beginning; it had to be able to stand on its own. Barker contributed his own research and drew on a wealth of footage captured by Al-Qaeda -- much of it propaganda -- that most Americans haven't seen until now.
"This stuff was out there," he said. "Some of it was on the Internet. News organizations got it; we were never shown it. Our government, the CIA, was looking at this stuff. The goal was to take you really deep into that world."
But taking audiences deep into that world isn't just about showing them new footage, he said. It's also about highlighting the humanity of the characters.
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"These are people who are making really tough decisions on our behalf, and I think it's important to understand how that all works from their perspective so we're better informed about how things get done in the shadows," he said. "With documentary and dramatic narrative, it's really all about the character and why did somebody do something? How did it change them? What were they thinking at the time?"
To understand what happened, you have to answer those questions. And when you do, what becomes a faceless operation is instantly humanized. According to Barker, one of his subjects ended up in counter terrorism because he couldn't find work as a school teacher. He described another figure as looking like a friendly aunt "who you might meet at IHOP once a month."
"We know the headlines, people think we know what happened," he said, "but I want to tell the human story."
Manhunt airs nationally on HBO starting tomorrow.