It’s exciting to see Shyamalan on such confident footing once more, all these years later.
"Dirty Wars" tells many of us what we already know, that the U.S. War on Terror has become what Borat once called our "War of Terror." The basic idea is that our elected officials are now committed to a high-tech version of terrorism, using drone strikes, home invasions, abductions and torture worldwide, ostensibly to keep America safe, but resulting in a surge of new, passionate terrorists with each civilian death.
For those American patriots who resist the idea that we might be living in a leading terror state, this film's early stretches will probably do little to move them away from notions of American Exceptionalism or the war as a necessary evil. Director Rick Rowley has chosen a super-slick, ready-for-Vimeo storytelling style that's somewhere between KONY 2012 and reality TV promos. Interviewees are introduced in faux surveillance photos that seem to have been passed through a Tony Scott Instagram filter. Their names and titles are spelled out letter-by-letter with a clickety-clack teletype sound effect. Every serious conclusion gets a grave Hans Zimmer-style thud or some mournful notes out of a Save the Children commercial.
If the skeptical viewer holds on tight, however, "Dirty Wars" becomes hard to swat away, no matter how much its style conveys unconscious insecurity about its assertions. Jeremy Scahill, the movie's narrator and principal subject, is persuasive. He's an independent journalist best known for covering the Iraq and Afghanistan wars for The Nation magazine and in his book Blackwater: The Rise of the World's Most Powerful Mercenary Army. There are two kinds of modern war reporters, embedded and un-embedded. Scahill is the latter, rarely riding along with U.S. troops as tour guides, often venturing outside NATO-approved "green zones" to talk to the people we glimpse only fleetingly on networks like CNN: the civilians. Scahill was among the free range reporters to document Iraq war atrocities and injustices in detail, but "Dirty Wars" dramatizes his discovery of equal or greater scandals in Afghanistan.
The movie follows him as he tracks the activities of the elite military unit JSOC (Joint Special Operations Command), before the capture of Bin Laden and the subsequent hit film "Zero Dark Thirty" made its members rock stars among soldiers. Back then, the JSOC were an unnamed and unnumbered secret force that swooped down on homes in the middle of the night and slaughtered "suspected terrorists"—often along with women and children who happened to live with them. Scahill visits one such family, who offer evidence that the relatives U.S. forces killed or abducted had no connection to Taliban or Al Qaeda: The family patriarch, who was gunned down at his doorstep along with three female relatives, was an Afghan police chief who'd worked alongside the Americans. Minutes earlier, the victim had been dancing in a living room crowded with clapping loved ones; we see family videos taken with a camera phone the night of the killings.