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Film Review: Dirty Wars

The destructive actions of the U.S. only serve to create new terrorists for American soldiers to hunt down and eliminate

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Dirty Wars

Directed by Rick Rowley

Opens at the Charles Theatre July 26

Days after a 2010 night raid by U.S. forces, the little Afghani girl still manages to talk to the reporter with the excitability of a child discussing a favorite story.

“They killed my grandfather and Gulalai,” she says, a smile still stretched across her face as she plays on a relative’s knee. “And they killed Agha Abdulnoor.” The smile suddenly turns into a thousand-yard stare.

The reporter is Jeremy Scahill, a foreign correspondent for liberal newsweekly The Nation and the subject of the new docu-drama Dirty Wars. Scahill’s investigation of that 2010 raid, which left an Afghani police commander and two pregnant women dead, evolves into a look at how the military launches attacks—some above the board and some not—on its terrorist enemies, fanning out across the Middle East and Africa as if they were squares on a global chessboard.

Dirty Wars, narrated by Scahill for most of the movie, follows him as he digs into other such attacks and learns of the military’s then-secret Joint Special Operations Command, a group designed to carry out covert operations in places where the U.S. hasn’t formally declared war. His reporting takes him to Yemen, where the JSOC begins hunting down Anwar al-Awlaki, a U.S. citizen and imam the government says is working as a recruiter for al-Qaeda.

Soon, the soldiers in the special-ops group of Scahill’s beat become heroes after carrying out the mission (portrayed in last year’s nail-biting Zero Dark Thirty) to execute Osama bin Laden, holed up in Pakistan. Archival CSPAN footage shows plain-spoken congressmen hailing the leaders of JSOC and openly thirsting for more terrorist blood. While Scahill is in Somalia reporting on U.S.-backed war efforts there, he learns al-Awlaki has been killed in a drone strike without so much as a trial. Weeks later, al-Awlaki’s 16-year-old son meets a similar fate in what the government says is an accident.

All of these facts have been widely reported, Scahill’s own coverage included. But following the thread in Dirty Wars as the war on terror becomes what he calls a self-fulfilling prophecy—where the destructive actions of the U.S. only serve to create new terrorists for American soldiers to hunt down and eliminate—is no less engaging and disturbing. As the film shows time and again through footage of dead Middle Easterners and Scahill’s interviews with surviving relatives, America has lost its moral bearings and disregards its own Constitution in the name of fighting terror.

It’s the “drama” part of the equation where things get a bit muddled. While the events depicted and the people interviewed are entirely real, director Rick Rowley’s use of slick pans, quick cuts, and the sepia-toned palette of Steven Soderbergh simulate a traditional narrative; he casts Dirty Wars as something of a modern-day All the President’s Men through the eyes of a war correspondent. But very little is compelling dramatically about watching Scahill conduct interviews, take notes, and look increasingly unsettled by what he discovers. Even worse, the Hollywood window-dressing only makes it easier for the viewer to disassociate and forget that the dead bodies and the carnage are all too real—which goes against the point of making a movie like this in the first place.

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