Documentaries about the "War on Terror" seem like a permanent fixture in the contemporary film landscape. So long as horrible things are being done either against the democracies of the West, or, more probably, by the democracies of the West themselves, these kinds of films will be with us. They tend to paint a dismal picture of the world, one that more and more resembles George Orwell's prediction of the future as "a boot stamping on the human face forever." This year's crop includes Drone (2014, directed by Tonje Hessen Shei), a film that attempts to provide a multiplicity of viewpoints on the Obama administration's campaign of remote control warfare. That very multiplicity tends to blunt its impact.
The various stories found in Drone: Brandon Bryant, a former drone pilot who is now a witness to the U.N. on the conduct of American drone warfare. His former comrades in arms tend to view him as a traitor for speaking out about it. Clive Stafford Smith, a human rights activist opposed to drone wafare who is working with the victims of drone attacks to bring atrocities to light. Shazad Akbar, a human rights lawyer who is attempting to use the courts to encourage Pakistan to curtail drone attacks on their territories, even if that means shooting down American drones. Chris Woods, an investigative journalist attempting to place responsibility for mistakenly targeted drone attacks. This is in addition to the various victims of drone attacks themselves.
Drone warfare is fertile ground for all kinds of moral fables and non-fiction essays. Drone is a film that makes no pretense of the fact that it's slanted. It's a film that's polished for effect. At its core, it's a talking heads film in which the interviewees have been selected for their ideological positions. When the film ventures into the subtleties of form, it turns into a bludgeon: an ironic cut to President Obama receiving the Nobel Peace Prize, a mournful shot of a drone pilot in times square (possibly wondering what it is he was defending), an almost fetishistic gaze at the victims of drone attacks, one such survivor lamenting that she now fears the blue sky (the filmmakers missed an opportunity to use Pink Floyd's "Goodbye, Blue Sky" as a soundtrack cue). The film is strongest when it's at its most observational, generally in the scenes that follow the lawyers in Islamabad. Usually, it's manipulative. Usually, it's a polemic.
Drone is a film that tests something I tell people about True/False (full disclosure, I work for them as a screener). I usually tell people looking for screening advice that no matter what they pick, they're bound to see a good movie, even if it's not entirely to their tastes. I've seen plenty of films at True/False that I haven't liked, but it's rare that I've been willing to say that such and such is a bad film. While Drone may not be a bad film, I don't think it's very good, either. I think it's a film with a scattered narrative constructed of declarative statements by carefully curated sources. It's a classic case of a filmmaker that doesn't trust their b-roll to tell the story, one in which the point of view is imposed by the choice of on-screen voices. It loses the audience by having too many parallel points of view. Worse, it's impatient. This is a film that ends on a curious point of anti-climax at Brandon Bryant's testimony before the U.N. There's no real feeling that this is meaningful in the long run. There's no real feeling of progress being made in the world or even of the futility of raging against the machine. This is a film that probably should have been incubated for a few years longer, where a wait and see approach for however long might have yielded up a broader view of the course of history and, perhaps, more nuance. The film as it stands doesn't really have an ending. It just stops.
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