News Column

'Dirty Wars' review: Too much reporter

June 14, 2013

YellowBrix

June 14--Documentary. Starring Jeremy Scahill. Directed by Rick Rowley. (Unrated. 83 minutes.)

It is possible to admire Jeremy Scahill and feel in sympathy with his point of view and yet not love "Dirty Wars," the documentary based on his recent investigatory work into the covert war on terror. The film has its use, for sure, exposing America's policy of using targeted assassinations and drone strikes. This is a morally dubious policy to begin with and one that, according to Scahill, has been employed to an extent and on a scale that most Americans would find shocking.

How can you not respect a guy who's so driven to do such dangerous and unpleasant work? Early in the film, we see him interviewing an impoverished Afghan family, in which several people -- including two pregnant women -- were killed in some misbegotten covert night raid.

The switch from Bush to Obama hasn't ended this kind of thing; in fact, it seems to have accelerated under Obama. Scahill's point is that such actions are not only cataclysmically wrong but counterproductive. Wiping out innocent civilians is a sure way to create terrorists, not eliminate them.

So long as the camera is on the victims and stays focused on specific crimes and occurrences, "Dirty Wars" is on solid ground. But as the movie wears on, the story widens, and as it does, becomes nebulous. Moreover, the focus becomes Scahill himself, who narrates the film and appears on camera looking stoic and concerned, like a virtuous animal in a fairy tale. The movie begins to feel like a star turn, like grandstanding.

The essential problem is that the audience really doesn't care about how Scahill gets the story, or how he feels, or even particularly how he looks. The audience only cares about what the story is, the details. More details and fewer close-ups might have made for a more effective documentary.

Mick LaSalle is The San Francisco Chronicle's movie critic. E-mail: mlasalle@sfchronicle.com Twitter: @MickLaSalle Blog: Maximum Strength Mick at www.sfgate.com

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