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Erica Abeel Headshot

A True-life Thriller About America's Covert Wars

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Jeremy Scahill's documentary Dirty Wars is a game-changing, mind-blowing film on par with Charles Ferguson's great Inside Job which deconstructed the financial meltdown of 2008. In it, Scahill, the Nation's investigative journalist, and director Rick Rowley expose the covert undeclared war America is waging around the globe -- "hidden in plain sight" -- purportedly to wipe out terrorism. To judge by some shocking footage from Somalia of "collateral damage" from drone strikes, the lives of non-whites seem especially expendable.

Docs have emerged as an essential corrective to mainstream media's news lite and its failure to hone in on the real story. Our frontline against obfuscation, docs seldom, alas, register at the B.O. and also often adopt an earnest, righteous tone that's off-putting.

Not the case with Dirty Wars, which is artful and svelte, as well as explosive, and lasts not a minute too long. This is partly due to the charismatic presence of Scahill himself onscreen as a dogged searcher after truth. The reporter has something of the same dispassionate, manly affect that made Ben Affleck so winning in Argo, though Scahill's gravitas is more earned. By bringing viewers into the process of his quest, Dirty Wars assumes the tantalizing shape of a mystery thriller as compelling as any feature film.

"This is a story about the seen and the unseen," "things hiding in plain sight," Scahill begins. What puts him on the scent is a slaughter of innocents in a night raid by Americans in Gardez, Afghanistan. Among the victims is an American-trained senior policeman named Daoud, along with women and children in his family. No one will touch the story. An American general calls the incident "unfortunate," adding the victims "were in the wrong place at the wrong time." Nor is Gardez an isolated incident. When Scahill discovers there were 1,700 night raids in Afghanistan in a single week, he realizes Gardez is part of a larger story.

His digging leads him to conclude that the U.S. has fundamentally changed the way it makes war. The key player is an outfit called JSOC (the Joint Special Operations Command) which has immense unchecked powers and conducts drone attacks on supposed jihadists in countries from Yemen to Somalia to Mali without a declared war. "The world," says Scahill, "has become America's battlefield and we can go everywhere." Especially chilling, the reporter said in a post screening Q&A, "You have guys in a box creating strikes in another part of the world."

Amazingly, Scahill gets to talk to the father of Anwar al-Aulaqi, an American Muslim who was recently assassinated in retaliation for what he had purportedly done in the past or in anticipation of some future hostile act. That America could target its own, that a citizen could be placed on a U.S. kill list without having been charged of a crime struck many in this country as scary and abhorrent. Through conversations with al-Aulaqi's father, Scahill uncovers how after the war in Iraq, al-Aulaqi, originally a moderate go-to imam, becomes a voice of retribution, viewing the expanding wars as an attack against Islam. In a first, perhaps, this doc explores the jihadist's POV without undue hysteria. After his death, al-Aulaqi's sixteen-year-old son is killed by a drone in Yemen. Why, the film asks, was a teen on the kill list? For what he might one day become? JSOC's elimination of bin Laden was supposed to bring closure (as implied in the deeply flawed and problematic Zero Dark Thirty.) But as Dirty Wars reveals, new enemies keep coming. Says Scahill of bin Laden's death, "It didn't feel like victory to me."

As Scahill follows the trail he picked up in Gardez to America's undeclared wars across the globe, he concludes the "story has no end." And they're "smarter," now, these new wars -- more tech-driven, leaving a smaller footprint and touching no American skin. Few lawmakers have the guts to ask: What powers does our government have to kill people without due process? The larger question asked by Dirty Wars: What happens to us as Americans when we finally see what's hidden in plain sight?