The common refrain is that investigative journalism is a dying industry; that the time and painstakingly meticulous detective work necessary to uncover politicians' dark secrets are rare commodities in today's rush-rush media world as Remington typewriters. But Jeremy Scahill, the national security correspondent for The Nation, gives hope that the likes of Nellie Bly, Bob Woodward and Seymour Hersh are not bygone relics, but that there is indeed another generation of strong investigative journalism alive and kicking.
Over the past decade, the 38-year-old Scahill has climbed to modest prominence. In 2007, he hit a highpoint with his bestselling book unveiling military contractor Blackwater's far-reaching and unbridled role in the U.S. war on terrorism. His follow-up book Dirty Wars hits stands concurrently with this documentary of the same name. The book and film recount Scahill's efforts to detail covert U.S. military operations in Afghanistan—as well as countries where America isn't officially at war, like Yemen and Somalia. As well, it patiently and stoically chronicles civilian deaths in all of those countries.
In the early moments of the film, Scahill points out that these wars are no longer breaking news—a humbling recognition that he realizes his work may have little public interest or impact. Which really is too bad because the history lessons are critical to understanding how U.S. foreign policy really is operating—the details of a noncombatant teenage boy purposely killed by a U.S. drone strike, the rise of an elite, secret military corps from obscure, potentially illegal death squad to national heroes as Osama bin Laden's assassins.
Dirty Wars begins with a little-reported incident in 2010: an extended family was dancing and goofing around Afghan-style in a remote home when one man was shot as he walked into the night. All told, seven people were killed in a military action that evening—including two pregnant women. Besides rumors and a discredited story in British newspapers, that incident otherwise had no records. But Scahill and director Richard Rowley piece together interviews and cellphone videos capturing the murdered man dancing one hour before sniper bullets hit him, and then showing his blood-caked corpse later that same night. It is a disturbing juxtaposition of images.
Like a noir detective chasing shadowy leads, Scahill provides the narrative thrust as he doggedly tracks down rumors and details. He introduces nefarious characters—powerful U.S. military and elected officials—and carefully indicts each with small clues uncovered in whatever format he can find—cellphone photographs, reams of redacted paperwork, interviews with frustrated CIA operatives. Importantly, he also provides the voiceover with a measured cadence and a calm tenor—a sparse, Hemingwayesque narrative that avoids alarm and, in doing so, lands an unflinching punch.
Dirty Wars is remarkable on several fronts: It tells important and largely underreported stories about covert military operations. Like Zero Dark Thirty, this film provides images and information beyond the drum-beating headlines. But, better—and more chilling than Kathryn Bigelow's Academy Award-winning narrative blockbuster—this film is all real.
Yes, the documentary pushes the genre's boundaries with stylized night-vision scenes, shaky cellphone footage and private-eye-styled black-and-white photographs of Deep-Throat sources. At times, the cinematography seems almost too perfect—long shots of the journalist leaning out balconies contemplating the Afghan horizon and close-ups of doe-eyed girls telling about their slain father. But those scenes also make this film not only journalistally compelling, but also artistically—and, at a time when documentaries need to compete with big-budget films like Zero Dark Thirty for their foothold in truth telling, this hardly seems like a viable complaint.
Mostly, Dirty Wars is wisely restrained in tone; the information about covert military operations and civilian killings is powerful enough that it doesn't need any foaming-at-the-mouth Michael Moore treatment. It simply needs to be told. Thanks to Scahill for nutting up and doing just that. Now it's your turn: Go watch Dirty Wars; in 83 minutes, you will receive some of the most important history lessons about American foreign policy.
7:30 pm Wednesday, Aug. 7 and Thursday, Aug. 8
Tin Pan Theater, 869 NW Tin Pan Alley