HBO documentary tells its own version of the hunt for Osama bin Laden — and the agents who took part in the search weigh in on Kathryn Bigelow's take
Did the real "Maya" character from "Zero Dark Thirty" walk the red carpet at the Sundance Film Festival on Sunday night?
It's not likely, but one of the interesting things about the upcoming HBO documentary "Manhunt: The Search for Osama bin Laden" is that it did hint — for a few minutes in the mind of this viewer, anyway — that maybe the driven agent played by Jessica Chastain in Kathryn Bigelow's controversial drama had been outed by director Greg Barker's doc.
Since it began screening last November, "ZDT" has won accolades, stirred up criticism and invited controversy over its examination of the tools, including torture, that it says were used to track down and kill bin Laden.
Now HBO's "Manhunt" is venturing into the same territory, though it covers a much longer period of time. And many of its large and small strokes will be familiar to those who've seen the "ZDT" story of a dogged female "targeter" whose team helped locate bin Laden's courier and ultimately kill the terrorist himself.
"Manhunt" puts half-a-dozen female analysts and targeters front and center, interviewing some and mentioning others. Most intriguing are the mentions of an analyst-turned-targeter named Nada Bakos, a longtime analyst in the CIA's bin Laden group who was working in Iraq with the team that tracked down bin Laden's courier.
In the film, Chastain's Maya character is assigned to the Counter Terrorism Center and to the CIA's Af-Pak (Afghanistan-Pakistan) department, where she plays a key role in tracking down the courier.
But could Nada Bakos really be Maya? Mark Boal, the writer of "ZDT," has steadfastly refused to identify the real-life counterparts of any of his characters whose names were changed, often citing the fact that many, including Maya, are still active agents.
"I will not play guessing games between anyone in film vs. real life," he told TheWrap in an email on Monday.
And Cindy Storer, a former CIA analyst and targeter who is interviewed in the film, told TheWrap at an HBO party on Monday afternoon that she believes Maya is a composite character and not Bakos.
What's more, Storer said, only agents who have left the CIA were allowed to be interviewed for "Manhunt." (The agency has confirmed that Boal met with current operatives during his research.)
Bakos, Marty Martin and Storer (left to right), the former agents who came to Sundance to support the film, are no longer with the CIA – while Maya, according to a recent story in the Washington Post, remains at the agency and has alienated colleagues with her abrasive manner, and been passed over for promotion because of it.
Bakos herself said on the red carpet Sunday that she believes Maya is a composite of herself, Storer and "a variety of others."
Still, even if you concede that "Manhunt" does not out Maya, the film remains a fascinating companion piece to "Zero Dark Thirty." Its narrative of the hunt hits many of the same points as Bigelow's and Boal's movie, and contains little if anything that could be considered contradictory to the "ZDT" account.
On the torture front, where "ZDT" has been roundly criticized, "Manhunt" is hardly definitive. It features conflicting views on whether enhanced interrogation techniques led to actionable information, but makes it clear that those techniques were indeed used in the search for information that would lead to bin Laden.
"I understand that people are uncomfortable with this," says one CIA executive in the film. "But the options we had were not very good."
When asked at the HBO party what she thought of "ZDT," Storer froze for a second. "I'm not sure if I'm supposed to talk about this," she said uneasily.
Persuaded that it was OK to talk, Storer grinned. "I thought it was really entertaining," she said. "I loved the scene of the raid [on bin Laden's compound]. That was amazing."
("Manhunt," which focuses on the analysis and only interviews former agents, does not contain any details of the raid; it jumps from assembling the key intelligence to President Obama's announcement of bin Laden's death.)
The one part of "ZDT" that she did not like, said Storer, was the portrayal of the late CIA agent Jennifer Matthews, who is played by Jennifer Ehle in the film and who is spoken about frequently and affectionately in the documentary.
"I cannot believe what they did to my friend Jennifer," said Storer, who added that the real Matthews was far smarter and sharper than the character depicted in the film and would never appear as giddy as she did in a key scene in which she brings a key source onto a military base.
As for Bakos, she recently wrote about "Zero Dark Thirty" on the Pacific Standard website, acknowledging "all the similarities between my career and fictional Maya's" but saying the film is wildly oversimplified (something Bigelow and Boal have conceded in the past).
"'Zero Dark Thirty' occupied an odd space," Bakos wrote. "It's not ridiculous enough to allow complete suspension of disbelief … but it's not accurate enough to resonate with my experiences as a CIA analyst and, later, a targeting officer in the clandestine services."