Really good documentaries succeed because they have two things going for them. The first is that they have an interesting subject matter. The second is that they have a unique format to introduce that subject matter. Dirty Wars is a good example of why having just one of those things might not be enough to make a good documentary. Dirty Wars is a fascinating exploration of the Obama Administration’s drone (and other top secret foreign) policies. The problem is that it comes in a bland format that spends so much time on the journalist finding the information that you begin to wonder if the information is as shady as the journalist.
Dirty Wars is based off of Jeremy Scahill’s (the journalist who uncovered the Blackwater scandal) book, Dirty Wars: The World is a Battlefield. Surprisingly, Scahill isn’t the director of the documentary. It is Rick Rowley, but don’t let that fool you as Scahill doesn’t let you forget that this is his project from beginning to end. There is some interesting and disturbing material presented in this film. Even if half of it is true, we as a nation have to have a serious discussion on President Obama’s foreign policy. While some of what was presented in the film has been backed up by credible sources, Scahill makes this film seem like his own hunt for a conspiracy. Instead of a film that should be focusing on the issue at hand, Dirty Wars too often focuses on Scahill.
Too make matters worse, Rick Rowley makes some odd directorial choices. The most striking of these is the decision to film grainy and chaotic shots of American soldiers doing things in the night to fill in for real-life footage. All it ends up doing is make the film seem fake. It is important to reiterate that some of what is presented in this film has been backed up my numerous credible sources, and it wouldn’t be surprising to learn that the large majority of what is presented in this film turned out to be true. Yet Scahill and Rowley somehow find almost everyway to make their findings seem sketchy.
Dirty Wars probably works really well as a book where Scahill can just write down his evidence and explain what all of that means. Yet as a film (where visual manipulation can be used by Scahill and Rowley as a tool), Dirty Wars doesn’t completely work.