Director: Leslie Woodhead
Writer: Leslie Woodhead
by Jon Cvack
The Netflix thumbnail for this documentary looks like something from Frontline, not that that’s a bad thing (as it’s one of my favorite series). It was produced by the Smithsonian Channel and follows the story of bin Laden’s rise across three administrations, culminating in the 9/11 attacks and Obama’s manhunt. It’s a fast paced film and while you’re much better served by learning the history yourself, as this offers only the cliff notes, it’s also one of the fairest summations of the situation.
Yet if there's one criticism I have amongst this film and others is the failure to explain why bin Laden's rise was so effective. What attracted so many to his message? For instance, Osama bin Laden was a son of Saudi Royalty, and once Saudi Arabia entered into diplomatic relationships with the United States bin Laden saw them as infidels invading the Holy Land. Soon he cut off all ties with his family and took to organizing his guerrilla effort. It’s here that I wish someone would explore what was going on. When we hear about Che, the Khmer Rouge, and other guerrillas that rose to prominence we understand what they were trying to achieve. It appears to me that there’s a hesitation to defend what bin Laden’s mission was; namely, bin Laden saw the disintegration of his religious culture and was willing to fight to preserve it at any and all cost, serving as more extreme version of what the Christian Right does back here in the states. What I want to know is what ideas bin Laden learned and espoused that caused such passion both on his and his followers’ behalf. It seems like such a large hole when I read and watch stories about his rise to prominence - with the exception of BBC’s “The Power of Nightmares”, which does an incredible job of showing the parallels between East and Western religions.
We learn that Clinton’s Black Hawk Down disaster played a large role in his ill-pursuit of bin Laden, as the American public could in no way support the endeavor and Clinton didn’t want to risk more lives. To think that the past campaign had Marco Rubio partially blaming Clinton for his hesitance in pursuing bin Laden, all while the Republicans were the ones who blew up the Black Hawk Down controversy, preventing any further pursuit, is just another source of their recent hypocrisy. I think Clinton should have listened to Richard Clarke (who’s featured in The Hunt for Bin Laden and wrote the powerful book “Against All Enemies”), serving as one of the few senior intelligence officers who completely understood the rising risk.
It’s fascinating how the top level officials at the CIA became obsessed with bin Laden, dedicating countless hours, their nights and weekends, all because they knew that it was a ticking time bomb. Thus, when Richard Clarke (Special Advisor to Clinton and Bush within the National Security Council) was ignored by the Bush administration, with his department devolved by Condoleezza Rice, much to Clarke’s frustration, you can’t help feeling enraged; especially as Trump continues to castigate the intelligence community. Clarke attempted to warn senior officials about the rising threat of Al Queda and was ignored. Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz said he didn’t understand the situation and why they were so focused on bin Laden. It’s here that my blood boils. Under the Clinton administration Clarke and his team were obsessed with tracking bin Laden and his followers. While Clinton didn’t have the political courage to pursue him, the Bush administration all but ignored Clarke’s admonitions. Does this mean 9/11 could have been prevented? I don’t think that’s necessarily true. But when you see the emotion Clarke and his team have it does make you wonder.
Added, was Bush’s infamous quote about not spending much time thinking about bin Laden. Imagine if Obama said something like this prior to bin Laden’s death? He would never have lived it down. It’d be played on repeat ad nauseum across the right wing media machine. Yet this gaff was excused by the Right, especially as the Iraq War faux pas began to spiral out of control. And so entire nation became destabilized, and bin Laden failed to get captured. Worse, is the situation in Torra Bora, Afghanistan when Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld ignored the requests of his Special Forces group who were demanding additional reinforcements. They knew that bin Laden was in the mountains, and while Rumsfeld supported increased bombing runs, additional troops were denied. I still don’t understand this. I truly do not understand it. All intelligence and ground forces pointed to having bin Laden in a corner and yet their requests were denied. I always wonder what would have happened if they caught him during that raid. Would Iraq have ever happened? How would the American public have supported such a thing if the mastermind behind 9/11 was captured?
Once Obama came him, he relied on intelligence and data to track bin Laden down. The story of his capture is something straight out of a film, where they had confidence in his location (see Zero Dark Thirty) while the night of the invasion happened to be the political correspondents dinner. I recall watching clips of the event prior to bin Laden’s death. Seeing the same clips after, with Obama knowing they were about to launch one of the most important missions of his administration is fascinating. You can see the glee on his eyes, knowing he’s about to make history, and hardly anyone on the right would give him any credit.
The film is a fascinating examination of the rise and fall of bin Laden, offering a great introduction to the history. After, you’re well off watching Frontline’s series on the Iraq War, Zero Dark Thirty, BBC's "The Power of Nightmares", reading The Looming Tower, Against All Enemies, and checking out the countless other Iraq War documentaries that dominated the 00s (particularly, No End in Sight and Taxi to the Dark Side). The film will make you furious as you witness the countless mistakes that were made, forcing you to wonder what could have happened and what history could have been.
BELOW: Richard Clarke on on the Iraq War
Thoughts on films, old and new
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