It's not an exaggeration to say that Dirty Wars, a documentary about American covert ops overseas (opening today at the Cedar Lee), 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 a lot 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 tell 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.