Saturday, January 18, 2014

You Can’t Spell “Oscar” Without “JSOC”. Almost.

Nowadays, it appears mandatory that at least one movie built around the murderous heroics of US Special Forces gets an Oscar nod.

Last year, it was Zero Dark Thirty.

This year, there are two nominations in the “Special Forces Shoot Brown Guy in Head” category.

Captain Phillips, the Somali pirate drama, garnered a nomination for Best Picture.

Special Operations are also represented by the nomination of Dirty Wars, based on Jeremy Scahill’s book of the same name, for Best Documentary.

Truth be told, I doubt either picture will go the distance. 

Captain Phillips is bedeviled by the customary awards season whispering campaign directed at “based on a true story” efforts, including high profile complaining by the crew of the MAERSK Alabama that the skipper was more Captain Queeg than Dashin’ Jack Aubrey.  Neither Paul Greengrass (director) nor Tom Hanks (the eponymous lead) received nominations and Captain Phillips will probably eat the dust of half-a-dozen other nominees when the best-picture votes are counted.

As for Dirty Wars, some dubious artistic choices were made in order to boil down Scahill’s 600+ page expose into a brisk 82-minute minute journo-thriller, ironically employing the same high def/shakycam/clattery keyboard tropes Greengrass used so effectively in the Jason Bourne movies, and pushing Scahill a little too much into the center of the narrative.

At the 24 minute hour mark, Scahill, after moodily shopping in Brooklyn and lamenting the boredom of “ordinary life”, discusses a massacre in Gardez, Afghanistan by a shadowy US outfit and declares that, in ten years work as a war correspondent, “I had never heard of JSOC.”

This elicited an involuntary guffaw from me, certainly not the reaction the filmmakers had intended when they documented a US operation that involved a) killing the wrong people b) at a baby naming party b) including two pregnant women and c) an Afghan police commander d) who had gone through multiple training programs with US forces who e) bled to death several hours after being shot because helicopter evac didn’t show up while f) the US forces concocted a bullshit scenario for their after-action report which g) one of the victim’s family members covertly recorded on a cell phone and h) involved the soldiers digging their bullets out of the women’s bodies with knives so the deaths could be spun to the foreign correspondents as “a brutal honor killing by the Taliban”.

The Gardez massacre occurred in February 2010.  In 2008, JSOC was already all over the news for its role in Iraq, thanks to Bob Woodward’s book The War Within and President Bush’s quip, “JSOC is awesome.”  You can even hear the audio clip, here.

This is a state of affairs that, I am confident, Jeremy Scahill, author of Dirty Wars the book, knew well, and indeed he references the Iraq experience and Bush’s quote in his text.

Fortunately, Dirty Wars the movie regains its footing as it discusses President Obama’s passionate embrace of special operations, a love affair beyond anything George W. Bush dared contemplate, symbolized both by the worldwide campaign of murder conducted by JSOC and the willingness of President Obama to turn this weapon against an American citizen, Anwar al-Awlaki, in Yemen.

Scahill’s book ironically closes the circle on Oscar season by revealing the backstory of President Obama’s bromance with JSOC: they met cute at the rescue of Captain Phillips!  As Scahill tells it:

Pop. Pop. Pop.

Three shots, fired almost at the exact same moment by three different snipers.  Three dead Somali pirates…”The Somali pirates are dead, the captain is rescued and Obama, I think, really tangibly, physically gets it that he has this power as the President", recalled [journalist Marc] Ambinder…After the takedown of the pirates…the troops from JSOC became Obama’s prized ninjas.  After the Alabama operation “The President personally invited the leaders of the Special Operations forces to the White House, and asked them to have an integral role in policy…”

It’s not surprising that the Obama White House wants to burnish the reputation of its beloved global murder machine, first with Zero Dark Thirty (for which government assistance turned into something of a cause celebre ) and now with Captain Phillips (Paul Greengrass wanted “a real Navy ship” and by gum he got one!)  Scahill, of course, had to deal with the opposite phenomenon of non-stop stonewalling.

Well, remember you almost can’t spell OSCAR without JSOC.  And maybe the academy is uncomfortable enough with the idea of extrajudicial execution that “almost” is as close as these two movies will get.  If you must see one, make it Dirty Wars.  And, if you can, read the book.

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