Movie Review: Minimalism and morality make “Drones” compelling

ImageIn “Drones,” a man and a woman sit in an air conditioned trailer in Nevada,
working joysticks and making life-or-death decisions about the people they’re
keeping an eye-in-the-sky on, eight thousand miles away.
One’s the pilot, the other the officer in charge. And they’re watching a
house, waiting for an accused terrorist to make an appearance. Their job is to
“V-ID” (visually identify) this “HVT” (high value target) and “drop iron” on
Collateral damage? Civilians, children of the target?
“Just don’t think too much” about that.
America’s “Air Force of the Future” may not be exactly like this, but the
jargon, slang, demeanor of the team and the environment they’re working in feel
right in “Drones.”
Rick Rosenthal’s film, based on a Mark Witten script, is a real-time mission
structured like a two-person “Twelve Angry Men,” that classic jury room drama in
which characters debate, persuade, deduct and reason out a decision that some in
their number want to rush through. So the story arc, the ebb and flow of the
argument between trigger happy Airman Bowles (Matt O’Leary) and Lt. Lawson
(Eloise Mumford) feels familiar, even if the milieu is new.
“Drones” is basically a two-person morality play, with the new officer, “a
general’s daughter” who could not cut it as a fighter pilot, using common sense
reasoning to decide whether or not this Afghan house they’re watching is about
to host a terrorist’s birthday party. Her blue collar, sexist video game addict
triggerman, Bowles, just wants another “money shot,” another “successful target
prosecution” to notch on his belt. What’s a few more dead “towelheads” or
“Hajis”? Lt. Lawson, on the other hand, may not have the stomach for warfare of
this or any type.
Witten’s script is a competent collection of platitudes and cliches —
college educated liberal guilt vs. never-question-orders soldierly conservatism,
female “sensitivity” vs. macho remote control murder.
But as Rosenthal and his cast click through the protocols of how the Air
Force goes about this sort of deadly business, false leads passed up the chain
of command (orders delivered by phone, or Skype), downward pressure to register a “kill,” even if they’re not positive
they’ve got their man, and possible reasons beyond “keeping America safe” that
people might become targets, you can’t help but be sucked in.
Mumford and O’Leary get beyond the cardboard character “types” and make these
people more interesting and conflicted than they first seem. And the
claustrophobic milieu, just two people staring at long range video, punching
buttons, maneuvering their Reaper and trying to make snap decisions that won’t
haunt them, serve the movie well.

ImageMaybe these sorts of morality plays don’t figure in the day-to-day operations
of drones, keeping watch over those who may or may not be a threat to America.
But after this intimate indie film takes us into that world, you kind of hope
they do.

MPAA Rating: unrated, with violence, profanity, sexual innuendo
Cast: Eloise Mumford, Matt O’Leary
Credits: Directed by Rick Rosenthal, written by Mark Witten. A Phase 4 Films
Running time: 1:19

About Roger Moore

Movie Critic, formerly with McClatchy-Tribune News Service, Orlando Sentinel, published in Spin Magazine, The World and now published here, Orlando Magazine, Autoweek Magazine
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