“Dirty Wars” is a pretty lousy, heavy-handed documentary about a very important subject. I feel that is a crucial distinction to make because as a piece of journalism it is compelling and vital, but as a movie – not so much.
The film focuses on the work of investigative reporter Jeremy Scahill and is based on his book of the same name that details the United States government’s increased use of Special Forces, drone attacks, and targeted assassinations to fight the global war on terror.
The main thrust of Scahill’s reporting is an attempt to shed light on the Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC), which is a classified branch of the military that reports directly to the president and is most famously responsible for planning and executing the raid that killed Osama bin Laden.
Scahill has uncovered many troubling aspects surrounding JSOC raids including the deaths of women and children due to bad intel, operations occurring in several countries where no war has been declared, and the apparent lack of oversight.
There is also a lot of attention paid to the JSOC strikes that killed American citizens Anwar al-Awlaki and his son.
“Dirty Wars” paints these singular events in clearly black-and-white terms but fails to address the shades of gray that come about when viewing it all from a wider angle.
JSOC represents a shift in foreign policy by the Obama Administration from addressing perceived threats to the U.S. with massive, conventional wars to using these smaller, targeted strikes.
The timing of this movie’s release seems to be perfect, when combined with the story of NSA leaker Edward Snowden there is a national conversation going on about how far we as a country are willing to go when it comes to sacrificing privacy and the due process of law in the name of security.
“Dirty Wars” isn’t really interested in engaging in conversation, at least not while there is plenty of dour head-shaking and finger-wagging to be done.
The most effective documentaries present the facts in a dramatic and engaging way without much (overt) manipulation, and then let the viewer come to his or her own conclusions.
“Dirty Wars” doesn’t want you to come to any other conclusion than horrified indignation, which is fine but it’s not very artful about it and the unfortunate reality isn’t so neatly cut and dried.
My biggest problem with this movie is the choice to make Scahill the star of the show instead of the basic, disturbing facts. Director Rick Rowley seems more interested in shots of Scahill pensively looking out the window or holding hands with traumatized locals while painting him as a shining crusader for truth and justice.
This just feels like a vanity project as the actual reporting has already been done in Scahill’s book. Plus, the documentary spends too much time on fluff, like trying to impress us with Scahill’s appearances on cable talk shows; as if getting gently ribbed by Jay Leno on Bill Maher’s show is some kind of badge of journalistic integrity.
The shocking revelations contained in “Dirty Wars” should be weighed and measured by every American as we look at the world and our place in it in the coming decades. It is just a shame they appear in a documentary that is more concerned with furthering the legend of Jeremy Scahill: Super Reporter.
“Dirty Wars” is unrated but contains images of dead and mutilated bodies and some language.