I will confess right off that I was planning to dislike Dirty Wars, and in all honesty, on a strictly intellectual level, there's a hell of a lot about it that's dubious. Though directed by Rick Rowley, it is told exclusively from the perspective of co-writer and narrator Jeremy Scahill, correspondent for The Nation magazine, and it's pretty damn hard not to see all the ways that it's a particularly self-valorising piece of journalish-as-autobiography. The film is as much about Scahill's actions in pursuit of the truth as it is about the truth itself: in all the scenes where he interviews a secret contact who appears only in shadowy silhouette with his force distorted, as cutaway shots feature Scahill looking serious and grave as he holds his chin sagely and nods, it's really hard not to notice how he's basically building his very own All the President's Men for himself. Frankly, it's as much political thriller as documentary exposΓ©, and I do not know how to feel about that. Certainly speaking as someone who believes that the issues Scahill is discussing and uncovering are of the highest order of importance, I don't like, from a strategic point of view, how glossy and slick and clearly re-staged at times the film is; it makes it awfully easy to dismiss it as popcorn cinema in the guise of nonfiction.

That being said, as a thriller, it's a pretty gripping one, and as an exultation of one man's quest to find the truth (however self-serving the execution sometimes makes it), it really is a captivating mystery told with blunt, exciting pacing and energy. Genre film narrative mechanics aren't a natural fit, perhaps, for an utterly sincere and, in the final moments, deeply upsetting advocacy documentary; but perhaps they are are also the right spoonful of sugar to to help with medicine that has not been especially palatable to most Americans in the last five years. That is, the awkward and unpleasant truth that the United States' shoot-first-ask-questions-never approach to using military force against Arab-majority countries hasn't gotten any better under the tenure of President Barack Obama than it was under George W. Bush, if in fact it hasn't gotten worse.

The story Dirty Wars tells - and it rather goes out of its way to present the material as a story - finds Scahill, already the author of a significant "expose the lies" book in Blackwater: The Rise of the World's Most Powerful Mercenary Army, on assignment in Afghanistan when a local contact asks him to look into a recent tragedy that struck when American soldier conducted a mis-aimed night raid that left several innocents - including two pregnant women - dead. By the late 2000s, that kind of incident was hardly shocking or unique, but it still set Scahill's journalism-senses tingling, and kicked of a long journey that involved scrounging for information about the mysterious Joint Special Operations Command, an organisation built to identify and exterminate foreign threats using all possible speed and efficiency, tracking along the way several incidents in which "efficiency" was replaced with "disastrous errors based on incomplete or faulty data".

There is a certain disingenuous tang to a lot of what Scahill uncovers - a foreign correspondent around the turn of the '10s couldn't possibly be as shocked, shocked to find out that the U.S. was ordering drone strikes willy-nilly in places where they maybe didn't belong as he at times indicates himself to have been. At times, his "and then I learned THIS" emphasis, when THIS is something he surely already knew about, recalls Michael Moore's more aggravatingly faux-credulous gestures, without Moore's carnival-barker robustness (I leave it to the individual viewer to decide if this weighs more in Moore's favor or Scahill's). That being said, the way the information is relayed in Dirty Wars makes it accessible and shocking in a way that a more sedate and intellectually-focused recounting of the moral, legal, and even practical limitations of the American drone program would have been unlikely to have done. And since the film is plainly aiming for hearts-and-minds territory, a little flashy cinematic gloss makes it land well.

It is exciting to watch, is the thing. Scahill is a somewhat bland-ish presence who the camera does not automatically love, but his furrowed-brow expressions and stiff Everyman looks serve to make him an engaging surrogate, someone to funnel a bunch of information and geo-political context to the viewer in a way that never feels like a lecture or history lesson or news report. Dirty Wars crackles, with every stall in the investigation and every blockade feeling rough and frustrating anew, and ever cleverly-won piece of information worth cheering for. The profession of on-the-ground journalism hasn't seem this romantic and intellectual in a long time, and Rowley and his crew deserve plenty of credit for that.

The question is left, though: is this really the film about the drone program and the "world is a battlefield" mentality (identified in the subtitle of Scahill's book released in tandem with the movie) that really digs into those issues, where they come from, and why they are pernicious? Is a celebration of the hard work of investigative journalism exactly the same as an exploration of what that journalism uncovers? Is this the kind of serious political film that e.g. deserves to be nominated for an Oscar? I don't really know the answer to any of those questions. But I do think that Dirty Wars would be a slightly smarter if slightly less exciting movie it had thought to ask them itself.

7/10