Investigative journalism finds new audience in Hollywood, says writer behind War Dogs

Journalist Guy Lawson says War Dogs shows how two hustlers managed to win a US military arms deal

Jonah Hill (left) and Miles Teller play 20somethings who exploited the US army contracts bidding system.
Jonah Hill (left) and Miles Teller play 20somethings who exploited the US army contracts bidding system.PHOTO: WARNER BROS
Guy Lawson believes journalism is all about questioning authority.
Guy Lawson believes journalism is all about questioning authority.PHOTO: WARNER BROS

Investigative journalism has seen better days, with newspapers cutting back on budgets for in-depth reporting in the digital age.

But some reporters are finding a warmer welcome in Hollywood, where studios hungry for original stories that are not sequels, remakes or comic book-based are increasingly adapting or celebrating the work of journalists. Two notable examples are last year's Oscar Best Picture winner Spotlight, about the Boston Globe's expose of child sex abuse by priests, and the 2009 battlefield drama The Hurt Locker, which won both Best Picture and Best Original Screenplay for former war correspondent Mark Boal.

War Dogs, which opens in Singapore tomorrow, is the newest entry in this sub-genre. Starring Jonah Hill and Miles Teller, it is based on reporter Guy Lawson's 2011 Rolling Stone article and subsequent bestselling book Arms And The Dudes, which tells the incredible story of two Miami 20somethings who hustled their way into becoming international arms-dealers and eventually won a US$300 million contract to arm the American military during the war in Afghanistan.

Speaking to The Straits Times in New York, Lawson says this sort of reporting is a dying craft.

"The kind of journalism I do is pretty defiant and it's unfortunate that there're fewer and fewer places to do it," says the 53-year-old Canadian, who has also written about Mexico's drug wars and corruption in Wall Street.

But expect to see more screen adaptations of such stories, he says.

His book, Octopus, a tale of hedge-fund fraud, is being turned into an HBO telemovie, while Warner Bros has acquired the rights to The Brotherhoods, his book about two police officers working for the mafia.

"Why are so many articles and books being adapted? I think the answer is that it's pretty hard to find original stories in Santa Monica," he says, referring to a neighbourhood in Los Angeles. "You need to get out into the world and that's what this form of journalism can do.

"And for Hollywood, it's the cheapest way to develop scripts, because they don't have to pay for the article (to be researched and written), they just have to buy it and not for that much."

With long-form investigative reporting in decline, films like these become an even more important tool in educating the public about abuses of power, especially in arcane worlds such as financial markets, which have been the subject of acclaimed films including The Big Short (2015), The Wolf Of Wall Street (2013) and Too Big To Fail (2011), the latter adapted from journalist Andrew Ross Sorkin's book about the 2008 to 2009 global financial crisis.

"Mass culture can really move the dial not just for the audience, but also for the actors responsible to be held accountable in a much bigger way," says Lawson.

"Because there were no consequences for any of those people who caused the financial crisis - the economy gets torn up and nobody pays a price. This has become the American Way. And so the only kind of revenge available is popular culture because now, more than ever, the ability to hold power accountable is vanishing."

With War Dogs, the parties Lawson wanted to take on were "the Pentagon, the Department of Justice, the State Department, federal prosecutors, a federal judge and The New York Times", whom he says scapegoated these two young men, who were eventually charged with defrauding the United States government by supplying it with faulty ammunition from an illegal source.

Lawson's investigation suggested that the US government knew exactly what private arms dealers like these were up to and, in fact, relied on them to do their dirty work.

Yet when The New York Times first reported that Efraim Diveroli (Hill) and David Packouz (Teller) were being charged, "it was a story about these kids selling faulty ammunition and how they'd fooled the Pentagon and were fraudsters". Lawson says: "And I thought, 'Well, that doesn't sound right - two kids fooling the Pentagon and somehow The Pentagon doesn't know what it's getting? Doesn't add up."

Packouz pleaded guilty, but when Lawson spoke to him afterwards, "he starts to tell me a story that's just wildly different".

"The ammunition worked. The government knew what it was getting. The kids were performing a vital mission for the government. But the government indicted them for being on the front page of The New York Times and embarrassing them."

And despite the fact that the questionable system for bidding on US army contracts has now been exposed, "in essence, nothing has changed - the same circumstances that occur in the book could occur today and the only consequences for anybody were for the kids", he says.

"All these officials that were essentially breaking the law, lying about it and then scapegoating the kids, all walked free."

Teller, 29, says Packouz and Diveroli had simply figured out how to make the most of the government's bidding system for such contracts. The star of Whiplash (2014) adds: "These guys didn't create this thing - they were just going by the rules and a lot of what they did was not illegal - it was kind of a grey area in the law, they kind of exploited something that was already there."

Director Todd Phillips, 45, believes "the government wants to look the other way - they fully understand that to arm the Afghans, they don't have the means to come up with 100 million rounds of AK47 ammunition in the middle of a worldwide shortage. They just don't want to know how it's done".

But while Lawson thinks films such as this can help expose wrongdoing, he concedes that Hollywood does not always get the facts right.

"I think interpreting these stories on screen is great - it can really work. It can also be terrible. Look at Zero Dark Thirty - has there been a worse piece of journalism in the 21st century?" he says of the Oscar- winning 2012 war movie, which was widely criticised for suggesting that the torture of prisoners had produced intelligence that led to the terrorist leader's capture.

"Suggesting that torture saved the day and got Osama bin Laden? It's obscene."

He is uncertain about the future of investigative reporting as a whole.

The writer, who is married with two young daughters, says: "I mentor quite a lot of young people who aspire to do that, especially women, because there are so few in this business. And I feel like that generation faces such a difficult landscape with digitisation, nobody wanting to pay for content, media companies falling apart, and a disregard for tradition."

The journalistic tradition he is most concerned about is the willingness to look beyond the obvious.

"My mentor was an Australian journalist who taught me every story that comes out is framed within 24 hours and very often it's wrong, and War Dogs is an homage to my mentor because this story was framed on the front page of The New York Times as these kids selling faulty ammunition to the US army.

"If you read the book, you'll see that it is a counter-narrative to that and that's what long-form journalism can do - because it gives you the space and freedom to, basically, question authority. And if journalism's not questioning authority what the hell is it supposed to be doing?"

•War Dogs opens in Singapore tomorrow.

Making bad guys look good

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 31, 2016, with the headline 'Two men, a US$300m arms contract and a red-faced Pentagon'. Subscribe