Bad drone, bad; go to the corner

BY MATTHEW BYRD | JULY 03, 2014 5:00 AM

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1.5 out of 5 Stars

If you had to design an American political issue that was both fraught with difficult moral questions and didn’t fall neatly into comfortable partisan division, you couldn’t do much better than U.S. drone strikes in foreign countries. Proponents will say it’s necessary to fight a new type of war, one waged against individual belligerents rather than standing armies. It’s less costly, both in terms of money and lives. 

Its critics, however, will tell you it tends to kill more people unlucky enough to be standing in the wrong place at the wrong time near the wrong people. America becomes the imperialist bad guy, the ones who killed the kid down the street. Anti-American sentiment runs high, support for terrorist groups grows, and our “counter-terrorism” efforts become anything but.  

Drones, the iTunes/VOD release from director Rick Rosenthal, attempts to take this prescient political and moral issue and turn it into a cohesive narrative. It seeks not only to entertain but to perhaps shed a different light on the issue, maybe even take a stance that makes us confront it in a way we hadn’t before. Some great pieces of art have arisen from taking this approach.

This film is not one of them. 

It’s a great premise: Stuck inside a trailer at a Nevada Air Force Base, there’s Sue (Eloise Mumford), the boxer/pilot daughter of an Air Force colonel — which her partner, Jack (Matt O’Leary) won’t let her forget in between lascivious remarks that act as his version of flirting. They fly drones over Afghanistan, looking for targets designated by the Pentagon as terrorists. Most days, they drop a missile, hit the bar, and drink away whatever regret may exist inside them. 

Today’s different though. The man they’re ordered to kill is at a birthday party with his family, which includes some geezers and a few young children. Sue isn’t willing to send a missile into a house full of innocent civilians. Jack has no such reservations. There’s doubt over the suspect’s guilt. The film consists of fights, physical and intellectual, over whether to strike or not. 

With so much natural drama in this situation, it’s baffling why Rosenthal and screenwriter Matt Witten decided to up the stakes to absurd heights. The last 30 minutes of the film are just filled with melodramatic revelations that wouldn’t be out of place on a subpar daytime soap. Instead of having, what I guess is, the intended effect of increasing the tension, Drones is robbed of any semblance of realism. Paradoxically, by artificially upping the ante, the suspense disappears. 

This melodrama also has the effect of reducing the situation to the simplest, black-and-white situation that anyone who knows anything about drone warfare knows has never happened, which in turn robs the film of any poignancy. When you want your film to be a statement on drone warfare, it helps to find out how drone warfare actually plays out. 

Even more egregious is the dialogue. The first half of the film is stuffed with unnatural, cringe-worthy banter between Sue and Jack that’s supposed to humanize them but instead just induces eye rolls. Then it devolves into the most trite, obvious monologues about the rights and wrongs of drone warfare, nothing anybody who’s picked up a newspaper or had a brain wave in the past year hasn’t heard before. 

Drones clearly falls on the anti-drone side of the spectrum. It wants us to see drone warfare as a moral failing of U.S. foreign policy that has to be stopped. That’s fine, I tend to agree. It’s just a shame that it’s so bad.

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