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Movie Review: Dirty Wars

Documentary comes clean about America’s ‘Dirty Wars’ (Our grade: A-)
Dirty Wars
Genre: Docudrama
Running Time: 86 min
MPAA rating: Unrated
Release Date: 2013-06-07
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By "Matthew Odam"
Austin360.com | Austin American-Statesman

The American public has been over-inundated with coverage of our multiple wars for a decade. We see the stories on TV and film and read the articles in magazines and newspapers. Slowly, a portion of the populace becomes desensitized to the violence. It is a sad casualty of a seemingly never-ending struggle and an indictment on our ability to compartmentalize and put our heads in the sand.

Filmmaker Richard Rowley’s documentary “Dirty Wars” sounds the alarms, throws the lights on in the room and confronts audiences with the brutality of the conflicts in Afghanistan and elsewhere. With the fearless and determined journalist Jeremy Scahill as his guide, Rowley takes the audience on a journey of discovery of brutalities and atrocities committed by the American military in the name of anti-terrorism.

In the words of Scahill, whose war coverage for The Nation magazine drew praise and, more often, dismissive sneering, the movie tells the story of the “seen and unseen,” of “things hidden in plain sight.” The movie is based on Scahill’s reportage, which was compiled in the book “Dirty Wars: The World is a Battlefield,” which was released in April.

During his time reporting on the war from relatively safe outposts in Afghanistan, Scahill realized there were things going on deep inside the country, beyond the gaze of American journalists. Things that weren’t reported in NATO press releases. Events not seen on television.

Scahill traveled deep into hostile, Taliban-controlled territory and discovered a family that had been attacked by men they said were American troops during an early-morning ambush. Killed were an American-trained Afghan police officer and two pregnant members of his family. The surviving family members said that the American troops retrieved the bullets from the women with knives, erasing any trace of their culpability.

American officials would later say that the family members were suspected terrorists, even going so far as to speculate that the women may have been killed because they first shot at American troops.

Using this event as a jumping off point, Scahill interviews citizens in Afghanistan, retired U.S. military leaders and officials in Yemen to trace the killings back to the Joint Special Operations Command and its deputy commander William McRaven.

The documentary uses stylized techniques such as a quick succession of surveillance-style snapshots as Rowley follows Scahill into a one-man operation of detective work. The movie plays like a captivating narrative feature, eschewing talking-heads and voice-overs to ride alongside Scahill as he starts turning over stones the U.S. government likely wishes remained untouched.

The blend of narrative feel and documentary authority can at times draw into question fact from insinuation. But “Dirty Wars” leaves little doubt of the American government and bureaucracy’s complicity in the killings.

What the two men discover is a massive operation by the U.S. military, condoned by President Obama, to make deadly attacks and use drone missiles to take out suspected terrorists. The raids and attacks number in the thousands, and the innocent victims are countless, the documentary contends.

And these attacks aren’t isolated to foreigners or Afghanistan. The movie suggests America’s covert operations have extended to 75 countries.

“Dirty Wars,” which won an award for cinematography at its world premiere at the Sundance Film Festival in January, is a brave act of journalism and makes for fascinating filmmaking about a subject that has become a hot-button topic of intense debate in the months since Scahill began his investigative reporting.

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June 27, 2013 - Austin360.com | Austin American-Statesman - Matthew Odam

The American public has been over-inundated with coverage of our multiple wars for a decade. We see the stories on TV and film and read the articles in magazines and newspapers. Slowly, a portion of the populace becomes desensitized to the violence. It is a sad casualty of a seemingly never-ending struggle and an indictment on our ability to compartmentalize and put our heads in the sand.

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