Two weeks ago, in a major policy speech about America's foreign entanglements, President Obama declared, "This war, like all wars, must end." But veteran journalist Jeremy Scahill isn't buying it.
In his new documentary and nonfiction book, Dirty Wars, Scahill chronicles the insidious side of America's covert military ops, which continue to engage in targeted assassinations, killing civilians in places like Afghanistan, Yemen, and Somalia, and the vicious cycle of increased anti-American fury. "I just don't see how this ends," says Scahill. "I think our film can fill in the gaps for people that want to understand what happens in the thousands of raids that happen every year."
Directed by fellow war reporter Richard Rowley, Dirty Wars (opening June 6) is gritty and gripping, playing out like a paranoid geopolitical thriller as it exposes the rise of the clandestine Joint Special Operations Command, which carried out the bin Laden killing, and the use of drone attacks across the Middle East and North Africa.
Early versions of the film presented Scahill as a kind of tour guide of atrocities committed by U.S. forces. But the two reporters realized that to connect with American audiences the film couldn't look or feel like another nightly news report.
For help, they turned to fiction filmmaker David Riker (La Ciudad), who co-wrote Scahill's narration and suggested the journalist's own experiences be integral to the storytelling. Scahill initially rejected the idea ("I don't write articles about myself in the first person"), but he eventually agreed, no longer wanting to be the kind of "numb robot" — as he puts it — that many war correspondents become so they can keep doing the job.
"The process of talking to David opened something in me that I have tried to tamp down," says Scahill. "And it became clear to me that a big part of the story is how this kind of war impacts us as people — those who cover it, and us as a nation." Scahill, in particular, "felt gutted" by the drone assault that accidentally killed the 16-year-old American-born son of alleged terrorist Anwar al-Awlaki. ("I got to know that family so well," he recalls.)
Rowley and Scahill also aimed to make the documentary more accessible by employing a highly stylized aesthetic, complete with fast-paced editing and stark, noirish lighting.
Rowley, who won a cinematography award at Sundance for the film, says the doc's look was inspired by a variety of sources, from "the hard contrasts of the combat zone," but also '70s conspiracy films (Three Days of the Condor, All the President's Men) and recent action adventures (The Bourne Identity). "We wanted to make a film that speaks in a Hollywood vernacular to reach a mainstream audience," says Rowley, "because it's about what we feel is the most important issue of our time."
But despite President Obama's recent rhetoric about limiting America's "perpetual wartime footing" and increasing "oversight" on drones, Scahill still remains skeptical, "because you have a popular Democratic president who won the Nobel peace prize and has sold this idea to liberals that this is a cleaner smarter way of waging war," he says. "I imagine Dick Cheney fly-fishing somewhere, chuckling about how great it's been to have Obama clean this up for the Republican machine.
"A lot of people have coat-checked their conscience for the duration of the Obama Administration," Scahill continues, "and that's going to come back and hit 'em."