Dirty Wars: Sundance Review

Dirty Wars

U.S.A. (Director: Richard Rowley)

Investigative journalist Jeremy Scahill chases down the truth behind America’s covert wars.

A strong filmmaking voice turns already disturbing material into a hot doc.

Richard Rowley follows investigative journalist Jeremy Scahill in uncovering secrets behind the War on Terror under Obama.

PARK CITY — It is terrible to wonder how many politics-minded Sundancers this week are prioritizing the old-news World According to Dick Cheney over Richard Rowley's Dirty Wars, a vital, gripping film demonstrating how America's secretive, any-means-necessary approach to the War on Terror, far from ending with the Bush/Cheney era, has escalated under Barack Obama. Its ugly truths may have seen plenty of sunshine (and even admiration) since the killing of Osama bin Laden, but the film's narrative drive offers a compelling package for viewers numbed by one news report after another about civilian deaths and secret hit lists. Its tough investigative tone and surprisingly stylish photography enhance cinematic appeal for a doc that merits theatrical exposure.

VIDEO: THR's Sundance 2013 Diaries          

Narrating with the grim urgency (if not the humor) of a doomed noir detective, investigative journalist Jeremy Scahill (author of a bestselling book on Blackwater, the private military company at the center of several controversies during operations in Iraq and Afghanistan) explains how he came to be interested in the Joint Special Operations Command. Reporting on the war in Afghanistan, he was curious about nighttime raids conducted by unknown forces in places journalists never go. We follow as he travels in 2010 to Gardez, the site of a raid in which two pregnant women were killed. Speaking to the victims' families, he can't understand why the raid took place, but he learns enough to know U.S. officials are lying when they say the women were victims of a Taliban "honor killing."

Witnesses at this and other raids speak of a different Taliban, an "American Taliban" -- "men with beards and big muscles" who are clearly not regular U.S. soldiers. Dirty Wars shows how much Scahill uncovers about these units before the bin Laden mission turns some of them, SEAL Team 6, into national heroes. He learns how often their victims aren't terrorist masterminds but innocents: We see numerous pictures of children, even infants, killed in night raids. Back in the States, Scahill speaks with some retired officers who view this as acceptable collateral damage and others who were willing to resign over an ever-growing "kill list" of sanctioned assassination targets. (Some of his interviews offer cloak-and-dagger intrigue.)

PHOTOS: The Scene in Park City           

Those kill lists -- whose targets could once be counted on a deck of cards, but are now so numerous we have to get Somali warlords to help do the killing -- become Scahill's main focus, particularly when they start to include American citizens. The Anwar Al Awlaki case gets a good deal of attention here, as the film describes how conduct of an ever-expanding War on Terror, where crimes go unpunished and the official record can't be trusted, is turning America's friends into enemies.

Production Company: Big Noise

Director-Editor: Richard Rowley

Screenwriters: Jeremy Scahill, David Riker

Producers: Anthony Arnove, Brenda Coughlin, Jeremy Scahill

Director of photography: Richard Rowley

Music: David Harrington, the Kronos Quartet

Sales: Josh Braun, Submarine

No rating, 86 minutes