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Dirty Wars

2013 | 90 min | R | 1.85:1

Dirty Wars


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Theatrical release date

 07 June, 2013
 29 November, 2013

Country of origin

 United States



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Dirty Wars Preview  

 / 10
Preview by Brian Orndorf, June 20, 2013

“Dirty Wars” is journalism, but it’s the type of journalism typically found on news magazine programs and cable networks. In his attempt to reach out and reveal the U.S. Government’s secret war on the rest of the world, reporter Jeremy Scahill welcomes the birth of his own myth, turning “Dirty Wars” into a love letter to his own research methods and capacity for understanding. There’s an abundance of searing, illuminating information contained within director Richard Rowley’s documentary about untoward military activity, but there are even more glory shots of Scahill in motion, recreating critical moments of his investigation while he blasts the camera with blue steel.

An investigative journalist and National Security Correspondent for The Nation magazine, Scahill has witnessed his fair share of important stories concerning the disagreeable activity of the U.S. Government, including his dissection of Blackwater U.S.A. While in Gardez, Afghanistan, Scahill uncovered strange activity that found the U.S. Military conducting secret missions to take out enemy targets, actions that resulted in heavy civilian casualties the White House had no interest in taking credit for. Building a narrative through interviews with Afghanistan citizens, studying their home movies, Scahill came across activity from the Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC), a covert unit carrying out suspicious and destructive actions across the Middle East. Following leads to Yemen, Scahill began to grasp the enormity of JSOC’s presence and its reflection of U.S. Military policy, hunting for evidence that could link the unit to the White House.

Scahill seems like a perfectly respectable gentleman, able to balance the demands of his heart with the needs of journalism, so it’s difficult to understand how much input he had in the ultimate shaping of “Dirty Wars.” It’s Rowley who orchestrates much of the picture’s overblown quality, wedging in countless shots of Scahill on his mission, trying to keep the star of the show in a submissive, reflective stance to maximize the validity of the work. We see Scahill typing on his iPad, interviewing subjects, taking notes, traveling around the world, studying evidence, and simply staring off into the great unknown, taking in the abyssal depth of his story. In fact, there’s more footage of Scahill than anything connected to JSOC, making “Dirty Wars” something approaching a vanity film, working carefully to transform the writer into a man on a mission, thus increasing the tension of the documentary. Most of these Scahill images are decoration as well, with dramatizations employed to give the material visual life, cooked to make a movie, not to provide a spellbinding inspection of the facts.

Despite its incendiary accusations, “Dirty Wars” feels masturbatory, like a work of mythmaking from a successful journalist out to transform himself into a documentary superstar. The film is far more approachable simply studying the haunting images of disaster tied to JSOC’s effort to take out al-Qaeda targets, absorbing the pain of Afghanistan natives mourning the loss of innocents, including children. The sheer shock of these actions is enough to fuel a sense of outrage and charging curiosity, yet Rowley doesn’t grasp the primary ache of these moments, soon funneling them into personal moments for Scahill to show off his unyielding compassion, with a single shot of the writer holding hands with an Afghan civilian used twice in the picture without ever establishing context.

Matters improve for “Dirty Wars” when it actually concentrates on the bizarre turns of the JSOC story. Time exposing the saga of Anwar al-Awlaki, an American citizen who grew into a powerful Muslim leader carrying suspicious ties to global terrorism, is captivating though ultimately unfulfilled. There’s not enough time to pore through al-Awlaki’s story, leaving the significant subplot reduced to Scahill questioning the White House’s decision to target the man for assassination instead of bringing him in for trial. The production also visits Somalia to piece together JSOC’s place in the use of warlord law, slaughtering enemies via puppetry, training the locals to kill as neatly as Americans.

“Dirty Wars” isn’t an investigative piece with neat hospital corners, with the subject rapidly shifting as the years pass. With the death of Osama bin Laden, JSOC was briefly turned into heroes, disrupting Scahill’s case for a moment. There’s a germ of an idea here for a scathing, richly researched vivisection of White House cowardice, but that singular power, that bravery, is lost to a glossy, obviously managed presentation of documentary filmmaking. Ultimately, “Dirty Wars” doesn’t feel like authentic reporting, it’s more of an audition reel.

Director: Richard Rowley

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