Opens Fri., June 28 at SIFF Film Center. Not rated. 98 minutes.
Less a documentary than a meditation, Dirty Wars is a careful essay on what the War on Terror means in the Obama era. That’s not to disparage the journalism here, which is as daring as any you’ll see in a war documentary. Richard Rowley’s cameras follow Jeremy Scahill as he meets Somali warlords and travels Taliban-controlled Afghan roads to see firsthand the results of U.S. foreign policy. But the doc’s true brilliance comes when Scahill steps back from the impossibly muddled facts on the ground to ask “Where does it end?”
Dirty Wars begins in 2010 Afghanistan, at a dangerous outpost well outside the Green Zone. Scahill visits Gardez, where an American raid left a police commander and two pregnant women dead. The village leaders tell him the troops were part of what they call “the American Taliban” on account of the beards the men wear. From there, Scahill tries to understand how this American Taliban—officially the Joint Special Operations Command—figures in the War on Terror. His conclusion: While Obama is withdrawing troops from Iraq and Afghanistan, he’s simultaneously using the JSOC to wage war across the world, ordering strikes and raids in supposedly allied nations. Anyone who makes a legitimate threat against the U.S. (as determined by the U.S.) can become a potential target on the JSOC kill list. In this new war’s “twisted logic,” Scahill argues, even the teenage sons of Islamic radicals—children who might grow into terrorists—could be targeted.
Even those who’ve followed Obama’s honed and droned war closely will enjoy the clean cinematography and front-line journalism offered by Dirty Wars. The movie does suffer from a few too many cutaways to Scahill’s furrowed brow and baby-blue eyes. And it raises so many issues—the role of mercenary warlords in American campaigns, media complacency, the riddle of Gardez, etc.—that it would take a movie three times Dirty Wars’ length to tie up all the loose ends. But at a moment when Edward Snowden is trying to escape espionage charges in Russia and Obama’s promise to reduce drone attacks rings hollow, the film perfectly captures the sinister undertone of all that hopeful White House rhetoric.