The on-camera ubiquity of Scahill turns a hard-hitting piece of reportage into the “Justin Bieber: Never Say Never” of investigative journalism
In “Broadcast News,” veteran TV reporter Aaron Altman (played by Albert Brooks) sees a colleague put himself at the center of a story, prompting Aaron to note sarcastically, “Let's never forget, we're the real story, not them.”
It's a piece of advice that could have helped “Dirty Wars” director Richard Rowley; the film features a great piece of investigative journalism by author and journalist Jeremy Scahill, but there's way too much of Scahill on camera.
Remember how local news shows in the 1970s and '80s would open with a montage of the anchorman talking to firemen, and then typing things, and then looking serious while listening to a community advocate?
“Dirty Wars” often feels like the longest local-news intro ever made: For every shot of an Afghani or Yemeni citizen talking tearfully about the death of a loved one in a missile strike, or every interview with a shadowy government figure revealing hidden truths, there's almost always an equally long shot of Jeremy Scahill listening, Jeremy Scahill taking notes, Jeremy Scahill furrowing his brow.
Michael Moore gets away with being front-and-center in his documentaries because he brings a jokey undercurrent to serious subjects. He's the movie equivalent of Lt. Columbo, a schlubby guy who's barely noticed by people in power until he starts asking uncomfortable questions. But all this camera time for Scahill, with his matinee-idol eyes and grave demeanor, just feels weirdly aggrandizing.
It makes “Dirty Wars” too much about his chasing the story and not enough about the story itself.
It's not that Scahill isn't very good at what he does — he broke the Blackwater story, and his reportage for The Nation ranks among the best muckraking of the last decade — but he shouldn't be the story here.
“Dirty Wars” begins with an investigation of a middle-of-the-night raid in Gardez, Afghanistan, that left a U.S.-trained police chief and two pregnant women dead. As Scahill tracks down the “bearded Americans” witnesses say were responsible, he uncovers information about JSOC, the Joint Strategic Operations Command, a shadowy group given almost unlimited powers to launch offensives in war zones.
The killing of Osama bin Laden brought JSOC out into the light, but when Scahill began his investigation, they were still rather hush-hush. “Dirty Wars” makes a compelling argument that their services were used at the beck and call of both George W. Bush and Barack Obama, and that their reach goes well beyond the declared wars of Iraq and Afghanistan and into areas like Yemen and Somalia.
Unfortunately, “Dirty Wars” often feels like an infomercial for Scahill's book of the same name, and it's peppered with shots that feel utterly extraneous, like a screen-filling close-up of Scahill's eyes, or Scahill looking upset in a car as neon lights reflect against the window, or an end-of-the-movie montage of Scahill's travels, in black and white and accompanied by a plaintive string section.
Scahill has earned a reputation as one of this generation's most inquisitive and provocative reporters. That reputation will, one hopes, allow him to survive this fawning hagiography, the “Justin Bieber: Never Say Never” of investigative journalism documentaries.