Filed from the frontlines of the war on terror, documentarian Richard Rowley’s astonishingly hard-hitting “Dirty Wars” renders the investigative work of journalist Jeremy Scahill in the form of a ’70s-style conspiracy thriller. A reporter for the Nation, Scahill follows a blood-strewn trail from a remote corner of Afghanistan, where covert night raids have claimed the lives of innocents, to the Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC), a shadowy outfit empowered by the current White House to assassinate those on an ever-expanding “kill list,” including at least one American. This jaw-dropping, persuasively researched pic has the power to pry open government lockboxes.
Doggedly questioning the logic and morality of waging a war with no accountability and no end in sight, Rowley and Scahill are shrewd enough to recognize that one of the strongest weapons in their own arsenal is entertainment. This isn’t to say that “Dirty Wars” is fun by any stretch, but that it takes pains to make the political personal, forging the viewer’s identification with Scahill by making persistent use of his voiceover narration and keeping him oncamera throughout. Scahill is no Redford or Hoffman, but one follows his train of thought and ultimately fears for his safety.
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The film begins in Afghanistan, with Scahill’s investigation of U.S. military raids that fly under the radar of embedded journalists and even NATO. That one such assault claims the lives of pregnant women in Gardez is shocking enough. But after an Afghani witness swears he saw American soldiers digging bullets out of dead bodies with knives, Scahill comes to discover that the Gardez attack is just part of a much larger war being carried out in secret by JSOC, the most covert unit in the U.S. military, responsible for an estimated 1,700 raids and counting.
Celebrated in the wake of Osama bin Laden’s death while remaining unchecked and mysterious, JSOC strikes in nations such as Yemen and Somalia, where no war has been officially declared. Scahill learns that the group’s long list of targets includes Anwar al-Awlaki, a radical Muslim cleric and American citizen vilified on cable news as the “next bin Laden,” but never found responsible for criminal activity. Awlaki’s death in a U.S. drone strike is soon followed by that of his 16-year-old son, furthering the sense that JSOC’s enemies include those who it thinks might act against U.S. interests in the future.
Scahill’s voiceovers (co-written by filmmaker David Riker) become increasingly despairing upon his realization that the global war on terror is poised to remain endless, with each covert operation leading inevitably to more targets and more strikes, none of them authorized by the U.S. Congress.
Tech credits are understandably rough in spots, but never to the detriment of the film’s political reach or narrative pull. The Kronos Quartet’s string score is suitably haunting.