Timeless Stories, Digital Landscape

Is there any contemporary story, even a botched “secret ops” raid in a remote village in Afghanistan, in which the main prop it all hinges on isn’t a digital image captured by a telephone? That’s the question that gnaws at the screenwriter in me a few days after watching Dirty Wars.

It did take a few days, mind you: I’m not a total writing wonk. The first, overwhelming feeling Dirty Wars gives one as a U.S. citizen is the heartsickness it’s aiming for. It’s all about the covert war that the U.S. Joint Special Operations Command is escalating both inside and outside of declared war zones.

Correction: It’s all about journalist Jeremy Scahill’s persistence at uncovering JSOC, and his evidence that the scope of its war has systematically widened in the past decade. It’s hard to write a satisfying feature-length story on such an unwieldy topic, so an easy “in” is making a hero out of the person who uncovers it. In that sense, Dirty Wars is fairly conventional. Like Cuban jazz (Buena Vista Social Club) and the omnipresence of corn (King Corn), to name just two, our window to the war on terror is a young American man’s journey. But that’s being a jerk about it. They got an Oscar nomination, and a lot of new people questioning JSOC’s legality, so what the hell?

Even Woody Guthrie's cell phone might read, "This machine bores people."

Even Woody Guthrie’s cell phone might read, “This machine bores people.”

Early in the film, Scahill visits the home of a local police chief who’s been shot dead, along with a few family members. He’s far from the “safe zone” in Afghanistan. The unidentified U.S. forces who raided the wrong house went so far as to dig their bullets from the corpses using knives – but inexplicably let the family take video closeups of the bodies while the soldiers were doing the same, capturing American voices on the audio.

I’d be embarrassed to write such a thing in a thriller: Any villain who’s so cautious he’ll destroy the ballistic evidence certainly isn’t going to commit his voice to cell phone video. But there it was. And (Now I am being wonky.) there arises Scahill and co-writer David Riker’s dramatic problem: Who are these killers?

As the narrative breaks into Act Two, another digital nugget propels it forward. An American delegation has come with a sacrificial sheep to offer its apologies, and another villager has snapped a photo, over the objections of the leading delegate’s handlers. It shows a U.S.naval officer with his name clearly on his uniform. There is no public record of this guy, except for one old War on Terror press release about something called Joint Special Operations Command. Since the mission is to apologize and offer good will, the special circumstance means the secret ops boys have no choice but to let themselves be photographed (That detail I would be proud to write.), and now we have a movie: Who is JSOC?

This is an example of writers telling a good story in the digital landscape, which apparently does reach every corner of the world, but it’s only satisfying because it happens to be true. Screenwriters work in constant ambivalence about these little digital truth machines. On the one hand, a contemporary story with any kind of realism must account for them. On the other hand, it’s boring to watch people interact with technology, and it’s never entirely satisfying when a cell phone, surveillance video, or GPS figures decisively in a narrative.

There seem to be two ways forward. For one, you can pretend a technology doesn’t exist. It is, after all, fiction you are writing, and you still set the parameters of that world, even in the present day. Instead of constantly saying “Now he would take a photo with his cell phone,” or “Now she would call for help,” you can say, “Let’s suppose they didn’t think of their phone right now.” No explanation needed.

Secondly, you can introduce dramatic circumstances via digital means, the way Scahill and Riker do, and then make sure the decisive action is more flesh and bones than click and upload. The story will likely be better – not necessarily more realistic – but harder hitting, because of it.