Jeremy Scahill, the national security correspondent for The Nation magazine and the best-selling author of “Blackwater: The Rise of the World’s Most Powerful Mercenary Army,” is a triple threat in “Dirty Wars.” He narrates it. He co-wrote the script. He is the documentary’s star. That stardom is a shame, though, since that means he’s also the documentary’s distraction.
During the course of “Dirty Wars,” Scahill is on the go. He travels to Afghanistan, Yemen, Somalia, Washington, D.C. We see him nodding sympathetically to interview subjects, putting on a bulletproof vest, sipping tea, testifying before Congress. We also see him writing in his notebook (a lot), inserting push pins in the wall of his Brooklyn, N.Y., apartment, putting Post-its on photographs, taping together printouts, using a highlighter. If Staples is casting for its next advertising campaign, it may have found its man.
In “Dirty Wars,” Scahill’s so busy Being A Reporter — capital letters are definitely called for — it gets in the way of what he’s reporting on. That would be the activities in Afghanistan and elsewhere of the Pentagon’s Joint Special Operations Command.
It was JSOC that was responsible for the mission that killed Osama bin Laden. It’s also been responsible for drone strikes, such as the one that killed US citizen (and Al Qaeda leader) Anwar al-Awlaki, in Yemen, in 2011, and for a botched raid in the Afghan provincial capital Gardez. The raid resulted in the death of two pregnant women and a US-trained police chief. It’s with Scahill’s investigating of the raid that “Dirty Wars” begins.
Now having a documentary that’s more about the investigator than the matter being investigated is OK — not advisable, but OK — so long as the storyteller is himself a compelling figure. Scahill isn’t. Looking as if he could be the New York Times columnist Paul Krugman’s slightly anxious younger brother, Scahill comes across as a maddening blend of nobility and narcissism. Again and again, the camera shows him looking concerned. Concern is a good thing, and his is undoubtedly sincere. But the reaction shots pile up, visual filler that does neither him nor the film any favors.
“Dirty Wars” wants us to know that in waging war in Afghanistan and fighting terrorism the Obama administration has done bad things. This is not news. It also wants us to see JSOC in a deeply sinister light. “I couldn’t help wondering: Was I investigating JSOC, or were they investigating me?” Scahill asks.
Twice he meets with a Deep Throat figure, a former government operative whose voice is disguised and face seen in shadowy silhouette. “The president has made a political and military calculation to let the Joint Special Operations Command run wild,” the informant says. That’s a troubling assertion, and by no means demonstrably false. But neither is it demonstrably true. (“Run wild”? Really?) Scahill and “Dirty Wars” clearly believe the assertion to be true and expect viewers to agree.
So Scahill meets with Somali warlords and al-Awlaki’s father and US Senator Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), among numerous others. “Dirty Wars” is many things, but static isn’t one of them. Scahill keeps trying to connect all these dots, many of them very dark, unaware that he’s the biggest dot of all and it’s obscuring the view.