Drones locks on, arms, and misfires

Drones locks on, arms, and misfires June 27, 2014

Review of Drones, Directed by Tonje Hessen Schei

Drones was not a half-bad idea for a low-budget film. I can see what the filmmakers were trying to do here. It had the potential to be a compelling, Rear Window-esque story, told entirely from inside a little drone operating center somewhere in Nevada with a real-time window into a world on the other side of the planet. Given the setting, the premise is predictable but compelling: two drone pilots (Eloise Mumford and Matt O’Leary) are monitoring the home of a high-priority terrorist operative. People start showing up at the house and the action begins as they try to decipher who is there, what their intentions are, and where the bad guy is. As they sift through possible explanations and try to make the best judgment possible, they confront the moral-quandary side of the coin. Just how sure are they that this is their man, that he’s a threat, and that taking him out is justifies killing his family in the process? Human lives hang in the balance, drama runs high.

Well, it should, except the execution falls flat. Other films that portray America’s ongoing conflict abroad like Zero Dark Thirty and Lone Survivor put this one to shame, and not just in production quality. Those films succeeded because they did not take a tangible pro-war or anti-war sentiment. They grasped that there are indeed hate-filled men out there who intend to kill as many of us as possible, yet they do so while wrestling with the complexity of armed conflict. In war there is no time to second-guess yourself, and in war all parties deserve our sympathy.

Our two drone operators wrestle plenty over the moral ambiguities of war, of course, but it’s like they’re asking the hard questions for the first time. Who waits until his finger is on the trigger to question whether the orders from up top are actually just and true? As a result, the ethos of the film clearly slants against drone warfare in every way. Airman Jack Bowles (O’Leary) has no issue with following the chain of command, taking out the “bad guy” regardless of collateral damage, and polishing it off with some pizza and beers at the end of the day. On the other hand Lt. Sue Lawson (Mumford), an aspiring fighter pilot, loathes the thought of sitting in an air-conditioned pod safe in the good old U.S. of A. while piloting an aircraft thousands of miles away that can spy on the most intimate aspects of the enemy’s doings. It isn’t like the good old days when you actually had to put your life on the line to drop bombs or shoot off missiles. How can there be honor in the equivalent of playing a video game?

I suppose seeing a child in your crosshairs could elicit that reaction, but it comes across more as preachy and emotional than thoughtful – like the filmmakers wanted to send a message about modern war rather than tell a story.

I must confess ignorance here. I’m not intimately familiar with the world of a drone operator, but based on the limited things I know about the military I’m pretty sure it doesn’t function like the one in this film. The operators are remarkably cavalier and almost clumsy at times. Their commanding officers are equally preachy and sound more like video game characters than real life military leaders. And therein lies the critical error: I didn’t buy in to the world of Drones, and I suspect that neither will any but the most naive or politically-stilted viewer.

Unfortunately, other weaknesses abound. Essential to pulling off a single-room film is quality acting. Mumford and O’Leary were competent and convincing at times, but couldn’t sustain the performance. But it gets worse. The film takes place during about an hour and twenty minute period, tracked meticulously throughout the film because it represents the drone’s remaining airtime. Toward the beginning of the shift, Lt. Lawson goes outside for a moment to use the restroom. It is midday and bright outside. Toward the end of the film, however, she goes outside again to face military police, and suddenly it’s the middle of the night.

That’s sloppy filmmaking, plain and simple, and it means Drones (literally) isn’t worth your time of day.

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