Documentary can be a Dirty Business

Dirty Wars
(USA, 87 min.)
Dir. Rick Rowley, Writ. David Riker, Jeremy Scahill
Feat. Jeremy Scahill
Jeremy Scahill in Afghanistan. Photo by Richard Rowley.
War is a dirty, dirty business. It takes a hero to hunker down in the dirt and get the job done. A soldier can get even dirtier and assume greater risks by getting the job done properly and ethically. Equally prone to getting dirty are those digging up dirt and holding people in power accountable for ensuring that war is less a dirty affair and more a clean fight. War makes people sensitive (as it should), but intrepid reporters could easily get mud in their eyes when they speak the truth.

More dirty, though, is making oneself the subject of a wartime truth-telling mission instead of being an agent of it. This quandary is the flaw that undercuts the Oscar-nominated documentary feature Dirty Wars. Dirty Wars is a bold, courageous, and nobly hard-nosed piece of investigate journalism, but it stumbles fatally in executing its thesis as a piece of cinema.

Dirty Wars follows reporter Jeremy Scahill to Afghanistan, Yemen, Somalia, and the ugly dark corners of the American war machine. A deadly raid in a small Afghan village that left many innocent civilians dead prompts Scahill’s intrigue. His investigation leads him into an abyss of backroom deals and military operations that further the war against terror in grossly undemocratic manners (to say the least), the worst of which are kill orders on American citizens at the behest of Joint Special Operations Commands (JSOC) and even President Obama. His work leads to a convincing portrait of the hypocrisy of the American war machine that pits Uncle Sam as the most evil bearded terrorist of them all.

It’s such incendiary and convincing material, so the victims of the operations Dirty War deconstructs really deserve better. The timelessness of the film, for one, feels a bit stale. Dirty Wars could have had the power of something like Fahrenheit 9/11, which also pits its inquisitive fellow as part of its subject, if it offered much new information or came out a few years ago. Some of the specifics events, names, and details uncovered in Dirty Wars are fresh and juicy bits of information, but the crux of the film—that American media allows the war to spiral out of control by turning a blind eye to the nation’s corrupt execution of the war effort—is evident for most informed people who seek information outside FOX News.

The only thing that’s really new about Dirty Wars is the frequency of Scahill’s face within the frame. Shots of dead, maimed, and bloody children are outnumbered by oddly framed close-ups of Scahill’s face as he crusades for truth. There are also countless shots of Scahill in transit, Scahill interviewing some impressive leads (who are also framed in weirdly obscure compositions), and Scahill charting the investigation with pushpins and sharpies like investigators do in cheesy political thrillers.

Dirty Wars might be about the investigator fuelling the discoveries just as much as it is about the war itself, but that only does the victims of the war a disservice because Scahill just isn’t that interesting a guide into the war machine. Dirty Wars conveys much of its information in a heavyhanded voiceover in which the monotonously voiced Scahill dryly dispenses facts and clichés. The dull reportage washes over a viewer because it never sounds as interesting as it should. There’s no stress or drama in the delivery to make the argument hit a viewer with significant impact.

“As an investigative reporter, you rarely have people’s attention,” says Scahill as he stresses the renegade element of his fight. The same is unfortunately true when an investigative reporter tries to command people’s attention for a feature length film. His book that chronicles the gross injustice of this story is probably an informative and compelling read. As a documentary film, however, it leaves much to be desired. The execution of Dirty Wars is just so flat, so wooden, and so inconceivably boring that it’s hard to imagine anyone being inspired to act beyond giving the film some marginally positive rating on Netflix because the subject matter itself is worthy of attention.

Rating: ★★½ (out of ★★★★★)

Dirty Wars is now available on home video.