Richard Rowley’s documentary “Dirty Wars” is a sobering account of acclaimed journalist Jeremy Scahill’s reporting on the war on terror in the Middle East and Africa, and the effect its clandestine operations have had not just on those shaken by its violence but also on Scahill himself. He’s the increasingly weary, die-hard truth-seeker covering a military/political apparatus built on shielding those truths from the American public.
Narrated by Scahill, author of a blistering expose of Blackwater and the private military contractor’s role in the Iraq war, and a more recent book, also called “Dirty Wars,” the film takes an atypically personal approach to a doc genre that has rarely needed more than grim footage, testimonials from victims and an omniscient narrator to generate interest and/or outrage in America’s win-at-all-costs approach to its enemies.
Essentially, “Dirty Wars” is about the toil of such reportage as the story itself. When Scahill digs into a suspicious 2010 night assault in Gardez, Afghanistan, that killed two pregnant women, he gradually uncovers the Joint Special Operations Command, or JSOC, a secretive military unit that would ultimately gain elite hero status for the Osama Bin Laden raid that took out the Al Qaeda leader.
But faced with evidence that JSOC has broad operational power outside of Congress, and an ever-expanding kill list, Scahill becomes both reporter and subject, a noir figure of sorts, rooting out a morally queasy side of the war while charting his own emotional weather, as Rowley’s camera returns time and again to Scahill’s face. (The fact that some of Scahill’s interviewees — government retirees distressed by America’s war policies — are shielded, adds to the conspiracy-style vibe.)
The personalized technique doesn’t always work, especially when Scahill is with grieving citizens in targeted countries. Not every interview needs his glumly empathetic mug. The movie is effective enough in what Scahill unearths, particularly in the case of radicalized American citizen Anwar al Awlaki, killed in a drone strike with scary implications as to whom the U.S. can mark for elimination.
The ambitions toward ‘70s-era paranoia thrillers aside, as a connect-the-dots narrative, “Dirty Wars” is eye-opening, a fierce argument that there are chilling ramifications to endless, vague aggression.
MPAA rating: None.
Running time: 1 hour, 27 minutes.
Playing: The Landmark, West L.A.