Each time reporter Jeremy Scahill appears on television, whether it’s CNN, MSNBC, or Real Time with Bill Maher, he seems ready to fight. Scahill is the reporter who wrote the book on Blackwater (called, appropriately, Blackwater: The Rise of the World's Most Powerful Mercenary Army), and he’s always ready to defend himself and make people who disagree with him look stupid.
In short, he comes across as pugilistic, tough and sure of himself in five-minute blocks. In Dirty Wars, a documentary he wrote with David Riker, Scahill seems unsteady, meek and pensive to the point of sadness. Given the subject matter—the secret worldwide wars being waged by the United States—being sadly pensive might be appropriate, but it doesn’t make for compelling viewing.
The filmmakers have made a mistake with Dirty Wars that costs them: Instead of presenting it as a tough investigative piece, they’ve turned it into a sort of catalogue of Scahill’s reporting and placed him at the center of a faux-thriller. Of course, Scahill isn’t the story. Presumably, he knows that, but because there are so many shots of him tacking a photo on his apartment wall or brooding as he walks down a Brooklyn street, the focus seems to rest with him, not whether the Joint Special Operations Command is murdering men, women and children in Afghanistan, Yemen and Somalia.
Maybe that’s a limitation of the documentary format. How does one make the statements of a bewildered Afghan citizen, who has lost his family in a JSOC raid, visually arresting? For Dirty Wars’ filmmakers, the answer is to let an interview subject speak with the English translation appearing in subtitle. Then, because this is a Scahill operation, we see him ask a question in English, see a translator relay it, and then see the interview subject answer, and then see his answer translated back into English. It happens more than once, and it doesn’t work.
Would that they found a different method, because United States foreign policy, and President Obama’s similarity to George W Bush, is an important subject. But Dirty Wars gives the impression it doesn’t quite know where it’s going. Such is the chance you take when you report, but the open-endedness of Dirty Wars—Scahill goes from Afghanistan, back to the US, and to Yemen and Somalia—is unsatisfying on a storytelling level. Even Scahill’s voiceover is flat, and there’s nothing else in the movie to bolster enthusiasm for what’s happening on screen.
That’s partly because Scahill has a difficult time connecting JSOC to undeclared wars in various parts of the world—who’s going to speak on the record about that stuff, anyway? Many of the people he does talk to are retired or won’t discuss classified information. And when Scahill gets to Somalia, he admits he has no idea what’s going on as he’s bounced from warlord to warlord.
One ever-interesting and richly deserving story that Scahill covers during the course of Dirty Wars is the killings of Anwar al-Awlaki, an American citizen, and al-Awlaki’s 16-year-old son, Abdulrahman, in separate drone attacks in Yemen in 2011. Scahill speaks with al-Awlaki’s father, who talks matter-of-factly about his son’s death and alleged terrorist ties. Then, the story gets lost amid the shuffle of tying all these attacks together. Then JSOC is given hero status when it gets credit for killing Osama bin Laden and Scahill, perhaps without meaning to, sort of admits defeat.
The movie version of Dirty Wars—it’s also a book, credited solely to Scahill—plays catch-up with news that’s older (if underreported). That’s not necessarily the movie’s fault, and spying and drone attacks are as relevant as ever. But Scahill as main character, along with the faux-thriller feel of the narrative, sinks the pressing events buried in Wars’ structure.
That’s too bad. Who the US kills and why is vital stuff.
Directed by Rick Rowley
With Jeremy Scahill