Published Jun 13, 2013Back in 2011, when the Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC) carried out their mission — killing Osama bin Laden — they were catapulted into stardom and instantly became national heroes. Kathryn Bigelow's Zero Dark Thirty ruffled some feathers in chronicling the years leading up to the kill, questioning many of the male ego-driven decisions that were made, yet the JSOC's image remained unscathed.
Given the current political climate in America and the recent intelligence leak that uncovered the NSA surveillance program, it makes perfect sense to release another film exploring the questionable tactics of the U.S. military program.
Directed by David Rowley, Dirty Wars follows Jeremy Scahill as he works as a reporter in Afghanistan and other war-torn Middle Eastern countries. Starting in 2010, it details his investigation of a raid led by the U.S. forces that left several civilians dead. The U.S military initially denied any involvement, but later backtracked and admitted its role, apologizing for the deaths and gifting a sheep to be sacrificed by the villagers as a peace offering.
Scahill remains front-and-center for the duration of the film, providing a diary-like narration of the facts he uncovers throughout his investigation of the JSOC, learning that many of their objectives have remained secret and shielded from the public eye. Their night raids and drone attacks frequently leave civilians dead or injured — often women and children — but since their identities are concealed for security purposes, they ostensibly don't exist.
As Scahill begins his investigation in Gardez, Afghanistan to probe the death of a police chief and his family that occurred during a night raid, he hears word that the men that carried out the killings were referred to as the "American Taliban": white American men with beards. As he travels to other regions investigating similar incidents, he repeatedly hears references to these same men.
Dirty Wars leads viewers through its all-encompassing investigation, touching on the persecution faced by other journalists in Afghanistan and Yemen while providing shocking revelations that border on conspiratorial. Yet, since the film is linked to Scahill's book (Dirty Wars: The World is a Battlefield), it's difficult to separate the writer from the investigator, at times — how much is fact and how much is opinion?
Compounding the feeling of fabrication is the fact that this documentary is structured as a docu-drama, with Scahill in front of the camera leading us in a first-person narrative. And while this is certainly Scahill's story, the film wavers when the camera chooses to show his facial reactions and awkward head-bobbing acknowledgements rather than remaining on his interview subjects. At one point in Scahill's narration, he speaks of the "Kabul media bubble," implying that most journalists dare not travel to the regions he traverses, openly insulting other journalists risking their lives throughout Afghanistan while affirming his sense of importance and ego validation.
Exacerbating this sense of self-promotion over subject analysis is a segment wherein Scahill briefly returns to Brooklyn, NY. The trajectory suggests that this is intended to underscore how disconnected he felt from his home after such a long period in a war zone, but views more like a bout of narcissistic preening, pointing out that he has a greater appreciation for how good things are in America than everyone else because he's seen what it's like on the other side.
Despite this, this political doc is technically well structured, having forward momentum and an understanding of storytelling, but Scahill's insistence on inserting himself as the dominant subject makes it all quite off-putting. There's far more to the story than Dirty Wars suggests or details — questions about the struggle between security and secrecy — but surely that will be examined more thoroughly in another of what seems to be a never-ending string of movies scrutinizing the Middle-East's battlefields. (Mongrel Media)