Rick Rowley’s Dirty Wars is a tricky film to gauge, not in the least because it feels less like Rowley’s work than that of the man at the center of the film, journalist Jeremy Scahill. The documentary is based on Scahill’s book of the same name, following in his path as he investigates the covert side of America’s war on terror. He goes from Afghanistan to Yemen to the backyard of a Somali general, documenting the covert side of the American military — a military that answers directly to the White House and is involved in raids, assassinations and apparent cover-ups, all with little accountability to the public at large. It’s the story of how this war has slowly spiraled out of control.
Obviously, these revelations are supposed to be eye-opening (and in some cases, they are), but perhaps I’m too jaded or cynical to really be shaken by the government’s dirty laundry. That’s on me, of course, but it does lead me to believe that Dirty Wars will suffer the same fate as so many documentaries do and end up only preaching to the converted. The people who should see this and who need to be shocked by it probably won’t see it. This doesn’t stop Rowley from trying to broaden the film’s appeal, structuring and pacing it like an espionage thriller while keeping Scahill’s journalistic approach intact. As a result, the film is heavy on information. This is a normal approach for docs, since the idea is that laying these issues out end-to-end is the most effective, compact and efficient way of informing an audience. But information and education also feel like Scahill’s main concerns. This is a man who’s been one of the most vocal critics of President Obama’s foreign policy — specifically his use of military force and drones.
As the story unfolds, it tends to feel a little aimless — mostly because we’re not sure where we’re headed. It’s not until about the two-thirds mark — with the story of Anwar al-Awlaki — that the film’s message begins to take shape. Here we learn about al-Awlaki, an American cleric who, after 9/11, denounced terrorism, but was later driven to extremism by U.S. policies and was eventually killed in a drone strike in Yemen. The following month, his 16-year-old son — also an American citizen — was killed in a drone strike as well.
Here the movie finally reveals that its politics lay neither to the left nor the right. Instead, it’s simply asking for accountability and transparency — and to take a look at the human aspects of war — especially a conflict that’s morphed into one in which American citizens can be killed without a trial. The film’s heart finally comes through in its coda, coalescing with Scahill’s sincere concerns for humanity and a clandestine war that’s become global. It’s a moving, even powerful moment that makes up for a lot of the film’s flaws. Not Rated.
Playing at Carolina Cinemas