It’s almost understandable that, as of press time, IMDb was still listing “Dirty Wars” as a “documentary/drama,” whatever that is. The hybrid description isn’t accurate; the film is a documentary, pure and simple. But the movie, by director Rick Rowley, plays out like something of a murder mystery.
Narrated, co-written and produced by Jeremy Scahill, the national security correspondent for the Nation magazine, “Dirty Wars” doesn’t employ conventional documentary storytelling, instead following Scahill as he works as a reporter in Afghanistan, Iraq and other war-torn locales. That means the film includes many scenes of Scahill, who at times appears confused, concerned, skeptical, frustrated, quietly outraged, frightened and even surprised. It may be an act, but it’s a good one.
The narrative begins in an Afghan village near the city of Gardez, with Scahill investigating a 2010 raid by U.S. forces that left several civilians, including two pregnant women, dead. Although the U.S. military initially denied involvement, it eventually admitted to its role and apologized for the deaths with the gift of a sheep to the villagers, who refer to the bearded commandos who stormed their home as “American Taliban.”
Rather than summarize the facts in cut-and-dry hindsight, however, the film, via Scahill’s you-are-there narration, uncovers the facts in the same way that Scahill appears to have done so: with doggedness in the face of official stonewalling. When he gets to his “discovery” of the Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC) — the once-little-known anti-terrorism force that only entered the spotlight after its role in the Osama bin Laden raid became known — it feels like a revelation.
Scahill certainly knows how to spin a yarn. Not that “Dirty Wars” feels fabricated in any way. It is meticulously researched and documented, with Rowley supplementing Scahill’s meditations with archival footage and the standard complement of talking-head interviews. Much of it is damning of the U.S. military in general and JSOC in particular, which is presented as, if not an outright villain, at least operating outside of appropriate congressional oversight.
Although Scahill has written a companion book, “Dirty Wars: The World is a Battlefield,” the film necessarily leaves some material out of its narrative, which takes Scahill from Afghanistan to Yemen and Somalia, where Scahill looks into other questionable operations. These include the 2011 missile attack that killed the American-born radical cleric Anwar al-Awlaki and the 2011 drone strike that mistakenly killed his 16-year-old son, along with several suspected militants. They also include the farming of some of our dirty work out to Somali warlords.
It’s shocking stuff, even if much of it has already been in the news. That’s mostly because of the way that Scahill strings it together into a coherent, convincing argument. In truth, it’s more of a question: In an effort to minimize the loss of American lives while maximizing the neutralization of “high value targets,” has America lost its moral compass?
If the implications of that question are hard to swallow, it isn’t because “Dirty Wars” feels like fiction. It’s because its facts seem to fly in the face of who — and how — we as a nation believe ourselves to be.
Unrated. At Landmark’s E Street Cinema. Contains some violent, bloody images. 86 minutes.