Days after a 2010 night raid by U.S. forces, the little Afghani girl still manages to talk to the reporter with the excitability of a child discussing a favorite story.
"They killed my grandfather and Gulalai," she says, a smile still stretched across her face as she plays on a relative's knee. "And they killed Agha Abdulnoor." The smile suddenly turns into a thousand-yard stare.
The reporter is Jeremy Scahill, a foreign correspondent for liberal newsweekly
and the subject of the new docu-drama
. Scahill's investigation of that 2010 raid, which left an Afghani police commander and two pregnant women dead, evolves into a look at how the military launches attacks-some above the board and some not-on its terrorist enemies, fanning out across the Middle East and Africa as if they were squares on a global chessboard.
, narrated by Scahill for most of the movie, follows him as he digs into other such attacks and learns of the military's then-secret Joint Special Operations Command, a group designed to carry out covert operations in places where the U.S. hasn't formally declared war. His reporting takes him to Yemen, where the JSOC begins hunting down Anwar al-Awlaki, a U.S. citizen and imam the government says is working as a recruiter for al-Qaeda.
Soon, the soldiers in the special-ops group of Scahill's beat become heroes after carrying out the mission (portrayed in last year's nail-biting
Zero Dark Thirty
) to execute Osama bin Laden, holed up in Pakistan. Archival CSPAN footage shows plain-spoken congressmen hailing the leaders of JSOC and openly thirsting for more terrorist blood. While Scahill is in Somalia reporting on U.S.-backed war efforts there, he learns al-Awlaki has been killed in a drone strike without so much as a trial. Weeks later, al-Awlaki's 16-year-old son meets a similar fate in what the government says is an accident.
All of these facts have been widely reported, Scahill's own coverage included. But following the thread in
as the war on terror becomes what he calls a self-fulfilling prophecy-where the destructive actions of the U.S. only serve to create new terrorists for American soldiers to hunt down and eliminate-is no less engaging and disturbing. As the film shows time and again through footage of dead Middle Easterners and Scahill's interviews with surviving relatives, America has lost its moral bearings and disregards its own Constitution in the name of fighting terror.
It's the "drama" part of the equation where things get a bit muddled. While the events depicted and the people interviewed are entirely real, director Rick Rowley's use of slick pans, quick cuts, and the sepia-toned palette of Steven Soderbergh simulate a traditional narrative; he casts
as something of a modern-day
All the President's Men