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Review: Dirty Wars (2013)

Dirty Wars (2013)

Directed by: Rick Rowley

Premise: A documentary in which journalist Jeremy Scahill investigates the United States’ global conflict with terrorist groups.
What Works: Over the past decade the documentary has become a major platform for filmmakers to address issues regarding the War on Terror and the conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq. These films have varied between partisan op-ed pieces like Michael Moore’s Fahrenheit 9/11, investigations such as Standard Operating Procedure, and straight reporting pieces such as Restrepo. Dirty Wars has elements of these different styles and it is one of the most provocative documentary films about the War on Terror yet produced. The film begins by investigating the 2010 massacre of Afghani civilians by United States military forces. This leads Scahill to a much broader investigation of the Joint Special Operations Command and the way in which America’s military operations have gradually become less transparent and less bound by traditional oversight. According to Scahill, the War on Terror has swelled into a global military operation that has run completely off the rails with no sense of restraint and no endgame in sight. That is a broad issue but the filmmakers do an effective job of distilling complex issues into graspable dimensions. This is done primarily by examining specific people and events. The Afghanistan massacre pulls the movie together and gives it a human touch. This film has many challenging elements to it but the way in which the filmmakers remind viewers of the human cost of the War on Terror is its most subversive quality. The interviews with the survivors of the 2010 massacre disrupt the barbaric stereotype of the Afghani people (and of Middle Eastern people in general) that is widespread throughout the media. Scahill also interviews the surviving family members of those targeted for assassination, namely the father of Anwar al-Awlaki, an American citizen who was killed for his part in inspiring terrorist attacks. These interviews hint at the legal and moral complexities of anti-terrorism activities and suggest that the current methodology is actually counterproductive. Scahill’s investigation also takes him to Somalia in which he documents the ravages of that nation’s civil war and he interviews gangsters who have been bankrolled by the United States. The extent to which Dirty Wars illuminates the dark underside of terrorism and counterterrorism makes this one of the most subversive films yet made about the War on Terror. 

What Doesn’t: While the information provided by Dirty Wars is interesting and important, the film has significant shortcomings as a motion picture. Its production values are sometimes lacking and a lot of archival footage looks like it was taken from Youtube. Scahill is less than compelling as the center of the film. He isn’t a flamboyant personality like Michael Moore or Morgan Spurlock and so the narrative does not have a compelling figure at the center of it. Dirty Wars has numerous scenes of Scahill staring at maps in his office or riding in cars while his narration overstates the obvious or pontificates on the stress of his investigation. These scenes don’t tell the viewer much that is useful and they occur with such frequency that the sequences come across as padding. Other scenes hint at ideas and events that are not sufficiently explored by the film, such as Scahill claiming he was threatened by a senior military official. These moments deserve more depth than the filmmakers provide and that is symptomatic of a more fundamental flaw of Dirty Wars. Viewers who have been paying attention to current events over the past decade, and especially to Scahill’s reporting, won’t find much that is new in Dirty Wars. The film functions as a concise presentation of recent history but it does not break much news.

DVD extras: Featurette, trailer.

Bottom Line:  Dirty Wars is a challenging and troubling documentary but it also raises important questions about the legal, political, and moral implications of the way the War on Terror has been conducted. Despite its cinematic shortcomings, the film is one of the most important documentaries yet produced on the topic.

Episode: #474 (January 19, 2014)