In Dirty Wars investigative journalist Jeremy Scahill, a National Security Correspondent for The National magazine, author of Blackwater: The Rise of the World’s Most Powerful Mercenary Army and Dirty Wars: The World is A Battlefield, undertakes a colossal individual investigation into the United States military’s rules of engagement and the rise of covert operations. Directed by David Rowley, Scahill, who produced and wrote the film, is front-and-centre of this diary-like chronicle. Scahill makes inquiries the Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC), the most elite fighting force in the military publicly lauded for their involvement in the death of Osama Bin Laden in 2010. But, as Scahill learns, many of their objectives since their formation in 1980 have largely been secret, operating outside the boundaries of the War on Terror under willing authority of high level U.S Defence. Night raids and drone strikes have generated significant civilian casualties across the globe, but on paper they don’t exist.
Scahill journeys into unprotected territory, the rural town of Gardez, Afghanistan to investigate the death of a police chief and his family (including pregnant women and children) during a night raid. With the deceased credited as enemies of the United States, and the raid a successful neutralisation, Scahill finds evidence to suggest otherwise. He then learns of many more operations displaying poor diligence suspiciously covered up.
By any means necessary, JSOC target their ever increasing “kill list” (from less than ten names following 9/11 to thousands at present count), and as we learn, even formerly respected U.S citizens hiding out in neutral countries, can be made a priority. What he uncovers is chilling and provocative, as he fearlessly puts his life on the line for the story.
It's shocking that citizens of the United States, and by extension most of the world, are not aware that this is happening. Wars are being fought in dark corners of the globe with actions are swept under the rug and civilian casualties favourably fabricated.
Dirty Wars' power resides in the way that it unravels, reliant on Scahill's objective assessment of the content. Like an elaborate mystery, new clues are dislodged and revealed to us during the narration as Scahill puts it together himself. What we learn from his trips to Yemen and Somalia is that this is a global concern. Cases like the one in Gardez are happening everywhere.
This is a very personal journey. Scahill conducts interviews with ex-military, and one that is kept anonymous in particular provides harrowing revelations, as well as the families of victims. He adorns his office with a web of accumulated rare photos and clippings. We also get a glimpse of Jeremy’s prior television appearances and a sense of the controversy he has already stirred before this undertaking. He is trying to put together a concrete case that will prove his doubters wrong. The immense work that Scahill has put into this investigation is a testament to his determination. This is frontline journalism and we genuinely fear for Jeremy’s life on several occasions. Even on home soil he meets hostile opponents who believe that his mission is a one-man fabricated whistle blow.
Though the film is technically outstanding the content here is powerful enough without this cinematic heightening to send chills up the spine. The photography, which won the Cinematography Award for U.S Documentary at the Sundance Film Festival, is sublime, and the accompanying collaboration of score from the Kronos Quartet, and a recurring piece from Godspeed You Black Emperor, further extenuates the unease and tension.
Dirty Wars is an important political tool, created through brave, focused journalism and inventive filmmaking that presents a damning case against U.S foreign policy.
[rating=4] and a half
Andrew Buckle - follow Andy on Twitter here: @buckle22
Andy Buckle is a passionate Sydney-based film enthusiast and reviewer who has built a respected online voice at his personal blog, The Film Emporium. Andy will contribute reviews, features and be our resident film festival, and awards expert.