SIFF Film Review – Dirty Wars
In the redacted sentences and blacked-out names of a CIA report is a lie hidden in plain sight. An omission that’s been done for the greater good. It seems with access to more information comes more secrets. The kind where pulling on a thread doesn’t unravel your sweater—it unravels a knitted quilt made for someone else entirely. Recent government revelations such as those from Bradley Manning and Edward Snowden—whose whistleblowing on the secret domestic spy program PRISM has now turned the whistleblower into the center of the news story instead of the program itself—have all made for a lot of reconsiderations in any political direction. It’s a very nebulous time where access to the world’s information for anyone with a computer/phone device and an internet connection has changed the way wars are fought and how governments conduct their activities, covert and transparent.
Investigative journalist Jeremy Scahill, at the center of the documentary Dirty Wars, has made a name for himself as a reporter who has a knack for uncovering secrets that are both detrimental in terms of practicality and defused by being flaunted once revealed. It’s a frustrating double-edged sword as far as the search for and accountability of the truth goes. Scahill’s first book, Blackwater, was a shocker for the mass public, revealing a private army and its indiscretionary actions around the world in the name of the “war on terror,” funded by the U.S. Government. But when it came down to brass tacks this last February, felony charges against the company’s executives were dropped once it was confirmed they were acting under orders of the U.S. Government. It was an amazing discovery by Scahill that ultimately led to not much more than a company name change and the indictment of couple of soldiers who took part in the Baghdad massacre of September 16, 2007.
Again Scahill has stumbled onto a massive secret that, once revealed, brings to light and questions how the face of war has ultimately changed and is being rewritten right now. So what do we as a society want to do about that? What begins as an investigation into an alleged raid made in the middle of the night by American soldiers with beards, on a family known to be American allies, turns into a discovery about the way America’s secret wars are being fought in the post 9/11 climate of the “war on terror.” It’s a difficult journey that’s often marked with possible violent outcomes and no truths revealed. In many ways it’s presented as a hero’s journey, which may be the film’s only weakness.
Scahill is a likeable man; he has a friendly demeanor and seems to have the ability to coax coveted information out of people. You feel you can trust him, which lends itself well to his reporting and, more pointedly, this film. His trusting personality seems to give credence to the claims he’s coming across and the connect-the-dots investigating that leads to inevitable conclusions. It also doesn’t hurt that time, and the course of pieces of information regarding the bigger picture being exposed slowly to the public, has led to many of the things Scahill discovers to be confirmed by some official, senator, or assassination of the perpetrator of the biggest act of terrorism committed against the United States.
It’s not that the film’s revelations aren’t shocking, or even infuriating. They are, it’s just even more infuriating to see these truths deflated by being omitted and then brushed under the rug. It becomes a question of whether anything can be done to change, stop, or prevent these things that are revealed from continuing, or happening at all. It’s not an easy thought to approach, especially in the face of bold government indifference to their own actions, simply because they believe it’s all in America’s best interests in the “war on terror.”
Director Rick Rowley handles the film’s pacing and delivery of information in congruence with Scahill’s almost hyperactive, OCD approach to journalism, as he frantically bounces around the globe following lead after lead, regardless of the risk—a feat that I’m sure is not easy for a documentarian. Unfortunately, the documentary is almost too good at its job, as it tends to wet the audience’s whistle without providing as much detailed information as may be required to truly have an impact on a suspicious audience. It also feels slightly weighted by the hero’s journey aspect of Scahill’s discoveries.
Several times along the path to discovery, the focus, when leads are slowing down, turns to Scahill’s personal journey, which to some audience members may come across as sidelining bigger questions at play in the implications of these discoveries. Outside the context of the film, this was addressed to me in the form of the book by the same title that Scahill wrote in conjunction with the making of the documentary, and interviews and Q&As he’s held in publicity for the film’s release. Ultimately, what’s been crafted and revealed is one of the most important documentaries of the moment, one that refuses to take shortcuts and compromises to show a startling truth about the way America is conducting wars in the world theater.
Final Grade: A
Also, be sure to check out our interview with writer/star Jeremy Scahill from SIFF 2013.