' ' Cinema Romantico: Dirty Wars

Monday, December 30, 2013

Dirty Wars

“It’s almost as if there are two laws in America, and the American people would be surprised if they could see the difference betweenwhat they believe a law says and how it’s interpreted in secret.”
“You’re not permitted to disclose that difference publically?” 
“That’s correct.”

It is at this moment, during an exchange between Sen. Ron Wyden and our documentarian narrator Jeremy Scahill, that the viewer will be forgiven for momentarily making like Al Pacino as Lowell Bergman in “The Insider”, peering around incredulously in the wake of some bureaucratic double talk, and wondering “Is this ‘Alice In Wonderland?’” It’s not. It’s America’s War on Terror, President Obama’s Great Clusterf---. (“You mean, other than the Obamacare Web Site?” “Yes?”)

The “60 Minutes” reference by way of Lowell Bergman is not coincidental. Punched up by director Richard Rowley with arty effects and kitschy editing tricks that give it a faux-grittiness, “Dirty Wars” as a film experience often comes across like an extended episode of “60 Minutes.” The camera continually ponders Scahill, a war correspondent for The Nation, pondering, focusing on him during interviews as much as the interviewee, making sure to repeatedly promote the peril into which he repeatedly puts himself, allowing for hypothetically dramatic recitations of lines like “I wanted to go home, but I couldn’t.” It’s not so much “Dirty Wars” as it is “Jeremy Scahill Investigates Dirty Wars.”

It essentially dives directly into the mess, recklessly, but doggedly, just like Scahill himself. Embedded with the military in Afghanistan in 2010, Scahill suspects he is merely seeing what the they want him to see and, thus, goes off script, on a search for what we’ll term “the truth”. This takes him from Kabul to Gardez, to the site of a secret strike perpetrated by American forces that go to great lengths to cover their tracks. Scahill digs deeper, trekking to countries like Yemen purportedly without war, and finding further evidence of American military nefariousness. Ultimately this leads him to the secretive Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC) in the months before JSOC becomes a militaristic Lynyrd Skynyrd post-killing of Osama bin Laden.

The story of this film, however, pivots on the killing of Anwar al-Awlaki, the American-born Muslim turned Jihadist that was tracked down and taken out with a drone to protect national interests, or some such. Part of the driving question, of course, is the legality of the President authorizing the killing (assassination?) of an American – an American, that is, on foreign soil – without submitting evidence to his nation's people. Moreover, Scahill and Rowley are intent on portraying al-Awlaki as a one-time moderate against Jihad who was gradually turned to the other side on account of his mistreatment by America post-9/11. This includes interviews with al-Awlaki’s father who filed a lawsuit to remove his son’s name from the kill list.

At the same time, that portrait of al-Awlaki, a bin Laden-in training only because America programmed him to be that way, has been challenged (and that challenge has been challenged, etc.). This reviewer will not pretend to know the whole truth, but one of the more interesting elements that organically and purposely emerges from “Dirty Wars” is the way in which the narrative can be framed. The film cheats this way, the President’s Administration cheats that way, and so it goes, on and on, an eternal loop. Pitch your version, draw your line in the sand, don’t come across, obfuscate anything else at all costs. For instance, the film never much addresses the opposing viewpoint, aside from interviews with occasional congressmen that are propped up more as comedy than serious consideration.

Still, the film’s ultimate intent comes in loud and clear. The investigative procedure as an arc consistently reveals another alley and another alley and another and so on, just as each “kill list” fashioned by the American government in its War on Terror leads to another “kill list” and to another and so on. “Dirty Wars” ends without an ending which is totally on point. For every extremist, real or imagined, America executes, another is compelled to stand up.

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