“Dirty Wars” opens Friday at Sundance Cinemas in Madison. Not rated, 1;27, three and a half stars out of four.
Jeremy Scahill will introduce the film and host post-show discussions at the 6:50 p.m. screenings on Friday, Aug. 9 and Saturday, Aug. 10. Read my interview with Scahill here.
A Reuters report in this morning’s New York Times tells of three al Qaeda suspects killed by a U.S. drone strike in Yemen. Who were they? What was the evidence against them? We’ll never know, most likely. All we’ll know is that they were killed, by us, for us.
For an investigative journalist like Jeremy Scahill, national security correspondent for The Nation, that’s not good enough. In his powerful film and accompanying book, “Dirty Wars,” Scahill digs into the human stories behind these anonymous covert actions being done in the War on Terror, trying to ferret out both the apparatus that allows it to happen and the real stories behind the victims.
Beginning with the killing of a police commander in Afghanistan who was seemingly sympathetic to the American cause, and then investigating drone strikes in Yemen and U.S.-sponsored warlords in Somalia, Scahill uncovers evidence of the Joint Special Operations Command, a secret unit that operates largely without congressional oversight and with vague, ever-expanding goals. “Dirty Wars” has the texture of a geopolitical thriller, as Scahill works his sources in intelligence, talks to the grieving and starts piecing together the intel he’s receiving.
And then the story gets ahead of him, as Osama bin Laden is killed — and JSOC is given the credit. (The head of the unit can be seen in that iconic “war room” photo, tellingly at the head of the table as Obama and Clinton crowd around.) The shadows Scahill has been chasing have come out into the light, and are applauded.
It’s here that “Dirty Wars” becomes more than the sum of its facts, illuminating not just the secret wars but the emotional toll that trying to uncover them takes on Scahill. He realizes that the story he’s chasing has no end; it’s an endless cycle of attacks and reprisals, growing larger and more unaccountable by the day. Almost Kafka-esque is the tale of one moderate cleric, who called for peace after 9/11 but, after years of being harassed and detained by American forces, became radicalized. The U.S. made him the threat that they always feared he would be, so they killed him with a drone strike.
A few weeks later, they took out his teenage son with another drone. Were they afraid that his father’s death would someday radicalize the son? Because if so, we are moving into “Minority Report”-style pre-crime territory.
Some will question director Richard Rowley’s decision to put Scahill front and center as the film’s protagonist rather than the facts themselves (Scahill would be among those questioning). But I think it works. Scahill’s presence and narration gives the film a narrative through-line as his investigation hops from one global hotspot to another, one clue to the next; at times it seems like Scahill is starring in the docudrama version of his own story.
And I think it works on emotional level to show the impact of that investigation on Scahill, the accumulating weight of tearful stories from victims’ families, the frustration that there’s always another layer to unpack. And the fear that, if he does finally get to the heart of the story, nobody will care.