Dirty Wars Dir. Richard Rowley

[Big Noise Films; 2013]

Styles: war and journalism documentaries
Others: Under Fire, The Fourth World War

Jeremy Scahill was present at the screening of Dirty Wars that I attended. He was in the middle of touring the country doing publicity for both the film, in which he’s the driving force, and for the book of the same name, which he wrote. Being a big fan of Scahill as well as an avid reader of the stuff he writes about, namely the current American presence in the Middle East, I read his long book marathon-style, in about four days, to prepare for seeing the movie.

Scahill’s main goal with the book, which he pulls off with a great journalist’s skill (he normally writes on politics for The Nation), is to detail the global movements of an extremely elite and well-funded American military unit called the Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC), which, famously, killed Osama bin Laden, among many littler-known operations. It’s the latter, the mostly unreported raids that our military carries out thousands of times a year, that Scahill means to shed light on, and he’s the type of reporter who will shove head first into a war zone in order to do it. The book didn’t disappoint, which made me reasonably confident that the documentary wouldn’t either.

I brought the book with me to the screening, thinking maybe I could get Scahill to sign it. Once the film was over and the Q&A died down, he did. As he was scribbling a nice personal note on the title page, and I was letting the largely disappointing doc settle in my head, I told him that I was sorry so much of the information he’d written for the book hadn’t made it into the documentary. He agreed that the documentary wasn’t able to go into as much depth as the book, and lamented the huge amount of material that he and filmmaker Richard Rowley had to leave in the trash files of Final Cut Pro.

He’s right to wish that more of his book had made it into the documentary, but I don’t think he’d agree with my assessment of what, instead, should have been left out. The book is full of the stories of normal people from the Middle East and North Africa who have had their lives irrevocably changed by JSOC (the unit is made up of Navy SEAL commandos and CIA spies) and the rest of the American military. The movie, on the other hand, is mostly about Jeremy Scahill. If Scahill would have liked his movie to be as precise and informative as his book, he should have left himself on the editing room floor.

Dirty Wars the book is packed with long, detailed, fascinating passages about the lives of people affected by America’s War on Terror. For one example, there’s Anwar al-Awlaki, a famous American imam, whose parents came from Yemen, who was slowly radicalized by America’s brutal response to September 11 in the decade after the attack, and who eventually became a high-value target in President Obama’s drone strike program. Scahill uses him as the perfect example of an American Muslim whose belief in America’s value system was shattered when he confronted the reality of our foreign policy. Awlaki isn’t presented as an innocent — he advocated for violence against innocents in retribution for America’s actions — but he is an essential example of how America took a series of disastrous missteps in waging its War on Terror. To prove how important and skilled Scahill is as a reporter, he’s been writing about Awlaki’s persecution for a few years now, yet only a few weeks ago, in late May 2013, did the American government even admit that he was the target of a drone strike.

Awlaki’s story, squeezed into Dirty Wars the documentary, makes do with a few sentences about Awlaki spoken by Scahill in voice over, plus an interview with Awlaki’s father, because the film has to make room for sequence upon sequence showing Scahill sitting in front of his laptop in his Brooklyn apartment, ostensibly researching and writing the news stories that became the book. For such a great writer (and, in Rowley’s case, such a good filmmaker) it’s surprising that Scahill missed the oft-proven rule that watching writers write is seldom compelling. The film consistently frustrates by assuming that the most exciting thing about turning a book like Dirty Wars into a documentary will be watching Scahill’s journalistic process. Where another film on a subject as urgent as the targeted killing of civilians by American forces might go into great depth about the targets themselves, or give us a history of the part of the world the American forces have invaded, or produce every available fact and figure about why the targets have been targeted, Dirty Wars zips through these essential elements of Scahill’s story in order to make room for more onscreen time with Scahill.

It would be nice to say more about what the documentary should be about, but the best way to do that is simply to point people in the direction of Scahill’s book, and his articles for The Nation, while steering them away from his documentary, which just isn’t up to the task of presenting the deep reporting that he’s accomplished. If you’re fascinated by moody recreations of the journalistic process — a whole lot of watching a reporter sitting in front of his computer or in the back seat of a taxi with a concerned look on his face, while voice over narration of his thoughts fills the soundtrack — then I suppose this is your kind of doc. If you’re interested in the subject the film purports to be about then go get the book, because this movie is not the companion piece that it should be.

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