In May, The New York Times published an editorial titled "Americans and Their Military, Drifting Apart." It warned against the widening chasm between the country's armed forces and the general population, the growing reliance on technology for efficient, economic warfare and the increasing scope of America's war on terror; with unmanned drones seemingly ready to strike at a moment's notice, the entire globe becomes a battlefield.
2.5 stars = Average
No MPAA rating but contains some wartime images and content.
Investigative journalist Jeremy Scahill, author of the best-seller "Blackwater: The Rise of the World's Most Powerful Mercenary Army," and filmmaker Richard Rowley have taken this mentality to heart with their documentary "Dirty Wars." Filmed from 2010-12, it was timed to be released with Mr Scahill's recent book on the same topic. The story follows Mr. Scahill from the war zones of Somalia to testimonies before the House Judiciary Committee as he tries to expose the harsh reality behind the Joint Special Operations Command, what he calls the "most secret fighting force in U.S. history."
Employing a rough, intimate approach to documentary, viewers are thrust directly into the journey with Mr. Scahill. As the film opens, shaky camera shots show him questioning survivors of a secret night raid carried out in the Afghan village of Khataba. Pen and notebook in hand, he scribbles furiously as he listens to traumatic accounts of American soldiers banging down doors, killing women and children. The disillusioned villagers, who never before opposed the Americans, want these men brought to justice, whom they call the "American Taliban."
The scenario repeats over and over -- people from different countries, angry and sad, ask why the United States killed their loved ones. These scenes are followed by voice-overs from Mr. Scahill as he searches for the deeper truth, the real reason behind these covert operations that target innocents abroad.
Unfolding with the speed and pace of a Robert Ludlum spy thriller, complemented by a chilling score from the Kronos Quartet, it is easy to get sucked into the chase. But as journalists, Mr. Rowley and Mr. Scahill should know that a good story surprises and has the value of timeliness. Many of the cover-ups they expose, shocking though they may be, are well known today.
Two years have passed since Osama bin Laden was killed, and JSOC's existence became not just acknowledged but nationally celebrated for its role in the assassination. It has also been two years since U.S. drone attacks killed two American citizens in Yemen, Anwar al-Awlaki and his 16-year-old son Nasser, both of whom feature as prominent scandals in the film. And by including multiple interviews and appearances Mr. Scahill has made on talk shows in the preceding years, detailing raids and assassinations authorized by the U.S. government, the effect is that of scooping himself.
Because the facts are not new, the movie becomes more reporter's notebook than hard-hitting investigation. This is where the strength of the film lies. One of the most intriguing moments comes when Mr. Scahill shops in a Brooklyn grocery store, his narration describing how mundane life back home has become since returning from war. He grows restless. Like a mountain climber combing a map for new peaks to scale, he searches for conflicts in which to immerse himself. More than the government officials who hack his phone, warning him to back away from the investigation or the unnamed source who hammers home the gravity of creating an elite fighting force continually searching the world for a target, it is Mr. Scahill's internal struggle that is most engrossing.
But this plot line soon fades into the periphery. By positioning Mr. Scahill as a kind of moral crusader, the filmmakers ignore the other reporting that has been done in this field. He is not, after all, the first journalist to expose the accidental atrocities caused by an oversized military, likened in the film to a hammer continually searching for a nail. In one scene, Mr. Scahill sits across from a U.S.-backed Somali warlord, who says, "America knows how to fund a war. They are war masters." While his statement makes the toes curl, it is a dull revelation that runs the risk of being hackneyed.
The film's message is important, to be sure: The 21st century spawn of what Dwight Eisenhower famously called the military industrial complex has given rise to a complex web of covert military units and government officials whose sole job, the movie suggests, is to find the latest terrorist threat, regardless of where that threat might be lurking, turning the War on Terror into a self-fulfilling prophecy, Mr. Scahill says.
And yet, waxing philosophical about dangerous themes cannot support the film's 87-minute running time. The themes, perhaps, are better suited for newspaper editorials and left out of the theater until the news is new enough or the emotion is gripping enough to sustain a story.
Opens Friday at Harris Theater, Downtown.
Jacob Axelrad: email@example.com or 412-263-1634. On Twitter: @jakeaxelrad.