In "Dirty Wars," journalist Jeremy Scahill examines the ascent and actions of the Special Joint Operations Command, the super-secret military force that performs drone strikes, targeted assassinations and other lethal operations in its function as a paramilitary arm of the U.S. president.
Both a nugget-packed investigation and a real-life thriller, this is a distressing but riveting documentary.
Scahill, who is the national-security correspondent for Nation magazine and the author of "Blackwater: The Rise of the World's Most Powerful Mercenary Army," guides us through the thicket of covert warfare in this 90-minute journey, which is directed by fellow war reporter Richard Rowley.
It begins in Gardez, Afghanistan. A night raid has killed a police commander and two pregnant women.
Interviews with the family, plus some sleuthing, reveal that American fighters performed the attack and the victims were not terrorists. Scahill discovers that the then-unknown SJOC conducted the raid. The attack was one of about 1,700 such incidents.
A picture emerges of SJOC as a deadly force that acts with approval from the U.S. government and NATO without accountability or congressional oversight. It operates in 75 countries, including many where no war exists.
While proponents, including President Barack Obama, contend that its methods are cleaner than the alternatives and its victims include, most famously, Osama bin Laden, the SJOC has killed numerous innocents, including children.
It outsources some of its work to warlords. Its tactics involve an ever-growing kill list.
Kill-list victims include a U.S. citizen — Anwar al-Awlaki, a militant imam who had committed no known crime.
Two weeks after his death in a drone strike, his 16-year-old son met a similar fate. The son didn't die because of anything he'd done, according to Scahill, but because of what he might do someday.
There's lots more, and the disturbing nature of the material doesn't always mesh with the fiction-inspired tone of the film, which Scahill co-wrote with screenwriter David Riker. ("As soon as I arrived, I sensed that things were not going to go well," narrates Scahill, hardboiled-detective style.)
We also get too much of Scahill in personal mode: typing, looking thoughtful, grocery shopping.
But when Scahill is digging for information, interviewing subjects and piecing things together — and that's much of the time — the film triumphs.
The documentary is a solidly researched, richly informative and compelling presentation about the changing ways of war and the human consequences of a war on terror that shows no sign of ending.
It also, especially through the al-Awlaki segment, powerfully addresses how this war is breeding the very mindsets that it purports to be eradicating.
Solemn music by the Kronos Quartet underscores the serious nature of the material.
three and a half stars
With Jeremy Scahill
Written by Jeremy Scahill, David Riker
Directed by Richard Rowley
Running time 1 hour, 30 minutes