Drones: London Review
This tense little two-hander questions the morality of lethal drone attacks in the ongoing war against global terrorism.
A topical thriller about the ethics of remote-control warfare, Drones began life as a stage play, which helps explain its cramped and confined setting. The screenplay by Matt Witten, a former writer for TV shows including House and Homicide, explores the moral disconnect between USAF drone pilots playing high-tech video-games in Nevada and their defenseless human targets thousands of miles away in Afghanistan or Pakistan. The action mostly unfolds in real time, offering audiences a fraught hands-on snapshot of the War on Terror.
Drones co-stars Eloise Mumford, best known for the TV series The River, and Matt O’Leary, a former child actor who later appeared in CSI and Live Free or Die Hard. The director Rick Rosenthal has a long but mostly undistinguished track record in features and television. Hardly the most glamorous ingredients, but the gripping subject matter is the real star of this low-budget two-hander, which has just had its world premiere at the London Film Festival. Following its U.S. debut next week at the Austin Film Festival, the hot-button topic is sure to attract further fest bookings and modest theatrical interest.
The action takes place almost entirely inside a claustrophobic cabin on a USAF base in Nevada. Experienced drone pilot Jack (O’Leary) is showing the ropes to Lieutenant Sue Lawson (Mumford), a former Top Gun trainee who has just flunked pilot school. In between bristling at Jack’s gauche and chauvinistic banter, Lawson identifies the high-level Al-Qaeda target Mahmoud Khalil (Amir Khalighi) in her camera feed from high over Afghanistan.
Sue prepares a missile attack, but then agonizes about collateral damage. Even a so-called “surgical” strike on Khalil means also killing his parents, friends and young children. With her mission time limit approaching fast, she challenges the shady ethics of military assassination to Jack, who merely warns her against “thinking too much.” She then protests to her commanding officer and finally to her father, a decorated general and Vietnam veteran.
Witten’s script strikes an uneasy balance between hawkish and antiwar positions, with Jack epitomizing the trigger-happy pragmatist (“maybe there’s no heroism, but there’s no shame either”) and Sue the tormented humanitarian incensed when innocent bystanders are cynically rebranded as “unidentified terrorist suspects.” Much of their back-and-forth feels a little too binary and schematic. It also seems strange that Sue has risen through the USAF ranks without ever confronting the prickly morality of civilian casualties before, only to suddenly risk her entire military career on principle.
The film climaxes with a string of implausible contrivances and unlikely reversals including a tear-jerking personal back story involving the 9/11 attacks. These are stagey and manipulative touches, but forgivable, since they allow Witten and Rosenthal to sustain a compelling tension throughout their talk-heavy two-hander. Both leads give excellent performances, with O’Leary showing potential to follow Ryan Gosling’s path from baby-faced child star to laconic, sardonic, left-field sex symbol. Drones is not exactly subtle, but it is a commendable attempt to dramatize a hot contemporary issue without resorting to clumsy didacticism or obvious political bias. The final scene should prove unsettling for liberals and conservatives alike.
Production company: Whitewater Films
Producers: Rick Rosenthal, Jim Hart, Matt Witten, Trent Broin, Nick Morton
Starring: Eloise Mumford, Matt O’Leary, Amir Khalighi, Whip Hubley, William Russ
Director: Rick Rosenthal
Writer: Matt Witten
Cinematographer: Noah Rosenthal
Editor: Michelle Witten
Music: Cody Westheimer
Sales company: Circus Road Films
Unrated, 82 minutes