10:33 p.m. June 19, 2013

Jeremy Scahill Is Gutted

“Dirty Wars” tries to make you feel like shit, and also make you vaguely proud of yourself for feeling like shit, which is pretty typical for documentaries. And it largely succeeds, if you ignore certain tendencies we’ll get into shortly.

If you go to these kind of movies much, you recognize the Serious Documentary Syndrome: the solemn faces in the lobby, the air of civic duty while trudging to your seats, because you’re all the type of concerned, responsible citizens who go to see hard-hitting films exposing our rotten institutions, our collective guilt, and our national shame. There’s a faint air of virtuous activism hanging over such screenings, as if people were doing a politically militant deed just by showing up. Much less popcorn gets eaten while watching serious documentaries, and many fewer Twizzlers.

Nevertheless, in spite of the self-satisfied atmosphere, I like documentaries. I was prepared to be strenuously depressed by “Dirty Wars,” and that worked out as planned. Hard to argue about the content, after all. Jeremy Scahill’s pretty well made his case in print already, in “Blackwater: The Rise of the World’s Most Powerful Mercenary Army” and “Dirty Wars: The World is a Battlefield,” about the heinous “war on terror” being waged around the globe in America’s name. In fact, Scahill and a few others have made this case so thoroughly that the film seems like a nightmarish echo of what we already know about drone strikes and secret torture and unlawful imprisonments and US government-ordered assassinations of American citizens, the details of which we keep half-forgetting in our willful amnesia.

The film’s trajectory starts with a nighttime U.S. military raid on an Afghani home, killing half the family that had been celebrating a birthday only hours before (we see the birthday video). Surviving family members tell Scahill that mysterious, heavily bearded soldiers, referred to as “the American Taliban,” later returned to dig bullets out of the victims’ bodies. This begins the investigation that leads Scahill to uncover the illegal terror tactics of the Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC), the US military’s most covert unit.

Formed in 1980, answerable to no one but the president, JSOC is revealed to have conducted 1,700 raids in Afghanistan, Yemen, and other locations, wreaking bloody havoc trying to track down the fifty “top terrorists.” (You remember the infamous deck of cards illustrated with photos of Osama bin Laden, Anwar al-Awlaki, and the rest.) This list of enemies inevitably expands, as does the “collateral damage” from JSOC raids, as grieving relatives vow revenge on the United States. We get to see grim footage of the casualties, including many, many dead children.

There’s also plenty of footage of the grotesque stonewalling that’s gone on in America as Scahill has tried to present his findings to high-ranking military officers, members of Congress, and the mainstream press. Scahill shines in these scenes. You can’t help but love him when he’s enlivening some rotten MSNBC panel discussion by shouting at Chuck Todd, “You’ve done NOTHING to keep the public informed,” and Todd rocks back in astonishment as if he’d been biffed in the nose, which can’t happen too early or too often.

In other words, there’s no stint when it comes to the existing media record of Scahill’s investigative reporting, the context for it, and the reactions to it, and it seems to me he couldn’t have done better than to stick to documenting the hell out of it in this film. But unfortunately, he doesn’t stick to it. The film’s creative team, including Scahill himself, director-cinematographer Richard Rowley, and co-writer David Riker (who normally writes fiction scripts), got a bright idea about how to approach “Dirty Wars” when it came to film style. They wanted to maximize attendance, so they took the most direct route toward their goal by imitating popular Hollywood blockbuster strategies. It seems they thought it’d be really cool if the film played like a commercial political thriller, maybe even reminiscent of one of those 1970s paranoid conspiracy films with Robert Redford or somebody like that. (This is a very popular idea in Hollywood circles lately.)

It’s confusing for an audience attending a serious documentary to come shuffling in prepared for their usual non-Twizzler experience only to have sudden, massive Twizzlerization thrown at them. “Dirty Wars” opens dramatically on a black screen, with a male narrator intoning, “This is a story about the seen and the unseen, and about things hidden in plain sight…”

This portentous narration plays like one of those heavy, zonked-out voice-overs that might be performed by film stars like Matt Damon and George Clooney in dark neo-noir thrillers and action films to convey how they’ll never recover from the harrowing experience we’re just about to witness in flashback. Problem is, there’s a trick to acting, there really is. And Jeremy Scahill is no actor, not even when playing himself in as actory a way as he can manage, which seems to involve holding as still as a deer in the headlights, and staring fixedly. So it’s damned awkward listening to his stiff line-readings and realizing that this strategy isn’t going to fade out — the filmmakers are committed to it. They intend to make a people-pleasing political thriller out of this thing, starring Jeremy Scahill as Ben Affleck, moody, bearded, and gorgeously lit, staring out transport windows at impoverished bombed-out desert villages and measuring the devastation by the slow, unhappy blinking of his expressionless eyes.

It’s weird. Takes half the movie’s 90-minute running time to get sufficiently used to these genre movie tactics to ignore them. And even then, it’s touch and go. The cinematography sports that gritty, austere, de-saturated look we’ve seen in a hundred war movies and action films. I’d just come from a screening of “Man of Steel,” which uses the same kind of romantically stark, leached-of-color imagery to dramatize the plight of Superman — poor, poor Superman! — as he grapples with the tragedy of being stronger and faster and handsomer and more able to fly than everybody else around him.

To top it all off stylistically, key “characters” in the “Dirty Wars” drama are introduced by having their names typed out in official-looking all-caps just like in all the cop shows and action films. And there’s a big emotional score performed by the Kronos Quartet providing a kind of musical sobbing over the film’s grand finale: images of suffering Middle Easterners in slo-mo black-and-white, many of whom we’ve already seen in earlier footage — look, there’s the sad-eyed little Afghani girl — and there’s Scahill walking away from the camera smiling and holding hands with an Arab man, as his concluding voice-over brings us full circle with an overwritten flourish:

I didn’t know how much the world had changed, or how much the journey would change me. I know the story has no end….Has the war on terror transformed itself into a self-fulfilling prophecy? How does a war like this ever end? And what happens to us when we finally see what’s hidden in plain sight?

Well, at least you definitely feel like shit at the end of “Dirty Wars,” don’t worry about that. But you feel like shit in two registers: in the typical noble-left-winger, documentary-induced way of learning a lot of terrible stuff that you feel helpless to do anything about, and also in the Hollywood-crap-induced way that occurs after you’ve just watched a failed genre retread so rote and dumb it exposes the embarrassing underlying fantasy you’re ashamed to partake in. A queasy-making combo.

Why on earth did Jeremy Scahill agree to play himself as an intrepid foreign correspondent, aka “the Heroic White Guy” whose brave struggle to “get the story” often overshadows the struggles and suffering of the people whose story it is, aka “the Natives”? The film wasn’t originally intended to take that shape, according to Scahill himself in an interview in the New York Times:

- How did it evolve?

I was going to be more of a tour guide to this archipelago of undeclared wars. As we started talking about how we wanted to tell the story, we realized we didn’t really have a story. We had four or five ministories, but we weren’t really doing an effective job of connecting them. David [Riker, the co-writer] said: “You’re burying a big part of the story, which is that this film has really changed you as a person. You’re not some dispassionate observer.”

- How were you changed by it?

I feel gutted as a person, to be really honest. When you do this kind of work you run from one story to the next and you try not to let anything catch up with you. Once we started doing this as a more personal journey, it was like a floodgate opened of all of the horrifying stuff that I’ve seen and the stories I’ve absorbed. I was forced to confront things that I don’t think I wanted to.

So there you are watching Jeremy Scahill “gutted.” He’s in his dreary office, sadly sticking pushpins into his wall map showing the spread of the war on terror. You can almost hear the director off-camera asking him if he can find a sadder way to handle the pushpins in Take Four.

You become uncomfortably aware of scene-staging. How much re-enacting have we got going on here? Certainly watching Scahill doing his melancholy food shopping at a Brooklyn grocery store is embarrassing. (Voice-over: “Life at home was dull after being in a war zone. Ordinary life is just that.”) Were regular shoppers in the store asked to play themselves, “just shop naturally”? Did the production have a discreet single camera filming Scahill tossing items into his cart, or a whole camera crew? Is it really Scahill’s own disaffection he’s playing, or a fictional embellishment that seems narratively “right”? Why is the scene so suspiciously reminiscent of the same-themed scene set in a grocery store in “The Hurt Locker,” which features the war-loving soldier played by Jeremy Renner struggling to adjust to civilian life? Does everyone returning from war zones find grocery shopping an especially alienating activity?

Once you become aware of it, this creeping subversion tends to gnaw away at the rest of the film. How did they get such lovely composed shots of some of this stuff? How long was director-cinematographer Rowley following Scahill around filming his Clooney-esque star turn specifically for this documentary, and how did the filming affect witnesses and informants and Scahill himself? If you don’t put these ideas firmly aside, they do strange things even to the most powerful aspects of the film. An aura of fiction hangs around some of the evidence, even though you believe in the evidence. For example, Scahill looks into the background of a man who swiftly becomes omnipresent in his investigation of JSOC, a sinister figure with the unlikely name of Admiral McRaven. The way McRaven crops up in photos and blurry official footage is exactly the way the villain would start appearing in a “Bourne Identity”-type film.

The capper is when the famous photo is shown to us of Obama and the US national security team watching the raid that killed Osama bin Laden, the photo we’ve all seen a million times, and Scahill (in voice-over) points out the man sitting dead center in the photo, right next to the president, looking like he’s running the whole show. We’ve never noticed him much before because he’s not Obama or Biden or Clinton or anyone we recognize. But that, it turns out, is Admiral McRaven’s assistant commanding general, hiding in plain sight. And as a result of this raid, JSOC becomes suddenly well known to the American public, and just as suddenly lionized. The all but untraceable gang of killers Scahill was tracking is transformed overnight into America’s heroes. It’s such a devastating twist, and the business with the photo seems as magical as anything CGI could achieve, that altogether it makes you wonder if maybe an over-the-top fictional delivery is the logical way to handle this material. Hell, why NOT shoot a documentary about investigating the war on terror as if it were a big phony Hollywood thriller? More people will watch it that way, and presumably get the gist of it, and ultimately who’ll care?

Still, it’s unsettling to consider the history of the documentary form, loaded up with filmmakers and theorists fretting about how to capture fact, truth, reality, objectivity, authenticity, weighing the status of every shot, every cut, every interview, every voice-over, every piece of music. Then a film like this comes along as if none of that history had ever occurred or could possibly matter. The filmmakers wanted a bigger audience, needed the story to “come together,” so they goosed up the genre thrills and imposed a leading-man character arc. No biggy, right?