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Former CIA analyst Nada Bakos talks the HBO doc 'Manhunt'

One of the subjects in the HBO documentary "Manhunt: The Search for Bin Laden" discusses how movies often get intelligence work wrong.

The HBO documentary “Manhunt” portrays the search for Osama Bin Laden. Credit: HBO The HBO documentary “Manhunt” portrays the search for Osama Bin Laden.
Credit: HBO

Nada Bakos was reluctant to contribute to “Manhunt: The Search for Bin Laden,” a documentary airing tonight on HBO. A CIA analyst who spearheaded the search for Abu Musab al-Zarqawi from 2004 until his 2006 assassination, she had to be convinced by director Greg Barker that it would be, among other things, “politically agnostic.”

Not that viewers can’t come away with their own complicated feelings from the film’s revelations, made by her and many other seasoned analysts. “It leaves the audience free to judge the material however they see fit,” she says, “instead of telling that what they should and should not believe.”

Barker’s film goes deep into the nitty-gritty of both the decade-long search and the job. We learn quite a bit about the role of a targeting officer, where a team follows one single person at all times, becoming intimate with someone they will likely never meet.

“Manhunt” is also a portrait of how intel work functions, as opposed to how movies have classically shown it. “I think it’s hard to portray what intelligence work looks like,” Bakos admits. “It’s akin to how everybody thinks law enforcement works. It always looks more like Sherlock Holmes.”

It’s inevitable that “Zero Dark Thirty” comparisons come up. In January Bakos wrote a critique of the film for Pacific Standard, where she lumped it in with the rest of Hollywood fare, dwelling on how it follows one character (Jessica Chastain’s Maya) rather than groups.

But it wasn’t all wrong. “The level of intensity of sitting on the edge of your seat and constantly having to be on — I think it portrayed that quite well,” she confesses. “They get some of it right. Not all of it is that sexy. I think they did a good job showing the arc of one character. But I don’t think that’s accurate in terms of how intel [gathering] works.”

Bakos is seeking to correct the public view of her former job. She’s working on a book about her experiences, as well as a TV show. She says that even when she first got the job she was not prepared for how difficult it would be. “I had never been in a crisis mode, being in a constant 24/7 state of memorizing phone numbers associated with names,” she says. “You used a computer but also stored a lot in your head. Your personal life definitely takes a back seat.”

She says the demanding job doesn’t necessarily have a short shelf life. Many of her colleagues, some of them in the film, have been there since the ‘90s, despite the unusually rough last decade. For her it was different. “I think war changes you, in fundamental ways you don’t realize until you sit back and take a breath,” she says. “The stress of the job is one thing, but being in a war theater is another.”

 
 
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