Dir: Richard Rowley. US. 2013. 86mins

Dirty Wars

A terribly sobering portrait of US foreign policy and the ill-defined War on Terror, Dirty Wars speaks directly to American voters who believe that their country’s behaviour overseas has improved appreciably since the election of President Barack Obama. At a time when Zero Dark Thirty has raised questions about the US government’s overzealous attitude toward defeating its enemies, war journalist Richard Rowley’s film argues that these concerns aren’t a thing of the past but, rather, an ongoing, potentially counterproductive strategy.

Dirty Wars grafts a personal narrative onto a story that is riveting enough without it.

Screening at the True/False Film Festival after premiering at Sundance, where it won the cinematography award for US documentaries, Dirty Wars will be released by Sundance Selects in North America, no doubt hoping to continue conversation about US counterterrorism operations. Though doubtful to be a crossover sensation, the film seems certain to inspire op-ed pieces and talk-show chat, bringing with it waves of free publicity.

Dirty Wars follows the work of Jeremy Scahill, a journalist who has reported extensively on US involvement in the Middle East in the wake of 9/11. Unfolding like a mystery, the movie begins by showing how Scahill uncovered a covert strike in 2010 in Gardez, Afghanistan, which killed, among others, two innocent pregnant women. Scahill’s sleuthing reveals that this accidental attack was not an isolated incident but, actually, part of a wave of operations orchestrated by the Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC), which has been given more latitude by US intelligence in recent years to go after purported terrorist suspects — even though their efforts have arguably only increased the amount of people seeking to wage jihad against the US.

A gritty piece of investigative journalism, Dirty Wars also works somewhat as a profile of Scahill, who has repeatedly risked his life by venturing into dangerous areas of the Middle East and Africa in order to expose the US government’s willingness to target its enemies, despite sometimes questionable legality. Among the documentary’s more incisive segments is its look at Anwar al-Awlaki, the American Muslim who spoke out against terrorism but eventually joined forces with Al Qaeda, his death drawing criticism because it represented a moment in which an American was killed by the US government without a trial. (Even more troublesome, Anwar’s son was killed in a separate drone strike, even though he had not spoken with his father for years.)

Scahill narrates Dirty Wars but is also seen throughout the movie, essentially serving as the main character. It makes sense to give this bleak film a rooting interest — and, of course, Scahill was instrumental in uncovering the information presented in the documentary. Still, on occasion Rowley allows Scahill to overshadow the story being told, focusing at times more on Scahill’s drive than on the facts at hand. This is hardly a debilitating problem, but nonetheless in its attempt to put a human face on these killings, Dirty Wars grafts a personal narrative onto a story that is riveting enough without it.

Production values are sharp throughout, with the praise going to Rowley who also shot and edited the film. There’s a slick headlong rush throughout, but this doesn’t compromise the amount of information being disseminated or the impact of the revelations. Every once in a while, the film (through Scahill’s narration) will oversell a particular emotional beat, but one could easily forgive this as symptomatic of a filmmaker and his subject caring very deeply about the issues they’re trying to raise.

Production companies: Civic Bakery, Big Noise Films

Domestic distribution: Sundance Selects, www.sundanceselects.com

Producers: Anthony Arnove, Brenda Coughlin, Jeremy Scahill

Executive producers: Scott Roth, Jess Search, Randall Wallace, Sandra Whipham

Screenplay: Jeremy Scahill & David Riker

Cinematography: Richard Rowley

Editor: Richard Rowley

Music: David Harrington

Website: www.dirtywars.org