It’s not an exaggeration to say that Dirty Wars, a documentary about American covert ops overseas that opens this week at the Cedar-Lee Theatre, would be mind blowing in IMAX 3D. (Say whaaaa?) That’s not to knock the documentary genre at large; it’s just that subject matter is so central to our assessment of “nonfiction” films that talking about them often feels more like talking about essays or speeches. Which is to say: our enjoyment is dependent on whether or not we liked a documentary’s content in a general way, or found the arguments persuasive. It typically has very little to do with the camerawork or — is it even possible? — the performances.
But Dirty Wars won the cinematography award at Cannes and you can see why immediately. Every shot is like a Pulitzer Prize-winning photograph. The majority of the film takes place in the Middle East, and the camera charts the region’s haunting, vivid cartography. It looks, in fact, very much like the scenic shots in a big-budget war movie: time-lapse landscapes, slo-mo dust rising over soccer-playing Bedouin children beneath shadowy mountains in the embers of dawn, etc.
Its look and style aren’t the only elements Dirty Wars borrowed from Hollywood’s mainstream. The film follows journalist Jeremy Scahill — author of Blackwater and reporter for The Nation magazine — as he investigates the cover up of an overnight raid in rural Afghanistan and pieces together a massive network of paramilitary operations, leading frightfully to the realization that drones are targeting U.S. citizens. It’s a cross between Zero Dark Thirty and The Bourne Identity, and is often just as thrilling.
That the film feels like a journalist-intrigue blockbuster is a coin with two equally compelling sides: On one hand, Dirty Wars is way more entertaining than a lot of the solemn, interview-heavy docs about politics many of us watch with an idea that we’re performing a civic duty (akin to spending a concerted half-hour with The New York Times.) There are moments when Dirty Wars has you on the edge of your seat. And a few staged reenactments — Scahill populating his apartment’s bare wall with printouts and photographs; Scahill interviewing a capped anonymous source in a darkened movie theater — feel less hokey because the production value is so high.
Documentaries — long-form video journalism, basically — are important, and utilizing successful Hollywood tropes to attract a larger audience seems like a legitimate strategy, especially because more people really ought to learn about the crazy shit going on in the American military (authorized by Obama, by the way).
The other side is related: Because it looks so good and feels so Hollywood-y, there’s potential for some viewers (even the oh-so enlightened!) to interpret the documentary as “just a movie,” to not take the horror seriously. This information is so shocking and so unwieldy — billions and billions of dollars, thousands of secret raids across the globe — that a more sober, no-frills approach (without Scahill’s overriding “this-story-changed-me” narrative) ultimately might have been more effective.
But it was awesome, and it may only be at the Cedar Lee for a limited time, so get out there in a hurry. The upshot is that this is a documentary you can actually enjoy with some popcorn.