Director Probes Pros and Cons of Drones

Rosenthal: "Consequences are grim."  
National Journal
Mike Magner
June 24, 2014, 6:24 p.m.

To the cas­u­al ob­serv­er, drone war­fare might be seen as a pan­acea, mak­ing it easy to pick off bad guys from a dis­tance without any risk to at­tack­ing forces. View­ers of Drones, an 82-minute in­die film avail­able Fri­day through on-de­mand ser­vices, will come away with a whole new per­spect­ive.

“It’s a double-edged sword — safe for the op­er­at­ors, but the con­sequences are grim,” said the film’s dir­ect­or, Rick Rosenth­al, a 33-year vet­er­an of TV and movie pro­duc­tion.

“This is the first time people in­volved in war­fare are see­ing the res­ults of their ac­tions in such de­tail,” Rosenth­al said dur­ing a re­cent vis­it to Wash­ing­ton. “A bomber pi­lot in past wars would let the bombs go and nev­er see the dam­age. Here you watch it right on your screen as it hap­pens.”

The two main char­ac­ters in Drones, a well-con­nec­ted Air Force lieu­ten­ant played by Eloise Mum­ford and an ex­per­i­enced drone pi­lot played by Matt O’Leary, learn just how trau­mat­ic a mis­sion can be when the tar­gets are in full dis­play in real time via satel­lite im­ages.

The en­tire film takes place in­side the com­mand cen­ter of a drone base in Nevada, which Rosenth­al com­pared to a trail­er used by a dir­ect­or on the set of a TV show. While mon­it­or­ing the home of a sus­pec­ted ter­ror­ist in Afgh­anistan, the pair spots a man be­lieved to be an al-Qaida lead­er — sur­roun­ded by wo­men and chil­dren there for a fam­ily gath­er­ing.

Ten­sions build and emo­tions in­tensi­fy after Pentagon of­fi­cials is­sue im­me­di­ate kill or­ders, even if there are col­lat­er­al dam­ages. The two pi­lots be­gin to doubt wheth­er they have the right man and wheth­er the deaths of chil­dren are jus­ti­fied, all while their com­mand­ers are threat­en­ing to for­cibly re­place them if they don’t pull the trig­ger on the drone.

Rosenth­al said that when the film premiered last fall at a fest­iv­al in Lon­don, the audi­ence of about 200 was asked af­ter­ward how many were con­vinced the tar­get was a ter­ror­ist. Only about 10 people raised their hands. Then the audi­ence was asked how many people thought he was not a ter­ror­ist. Again, only about 10 people raised their hands.

“So most were not con­vinced one way or the oth­er,” he said. “There are a num­ber of ways to look at it. We’re neither pro- nor anti-drones. The film makes both cases.”

But the movie cer­tainly raises im­port­ant mor­al ques­tions about today’s de­struct­ive tech­no­lo­gies.

“As the lieu­ten­ant says in the film, if we can wage war any­time any­where without risk, what’s to keep us from do­ing some very stu­pid things?” Rosenth­al said.

Rosenth­al, who turned 65 this month, is a New York City nat­ive who ac­tu­ally star­ted in polit­ics be­fore dir­ect­ing his first movie, Hal­loween II, re­leased in 1981 (the same year Rosenth­al mar­ried one of the act­resses in the ori­gin­al Hal­loween movie, Nancy Steph­ens). He in­terned on Cap­it­ol Hill for the late Sen. Thomas Dodd, D-Conn., be­fore head­ing to Hol­ly­wood.

Rosenth­al dir­ec­ted an­oth­er mil­it­ary-themed film that came out in 1988, Dis­tant Thun­der, about the troubles of a Vi­et­nam War vet­er­an. “I’ve al­ways been in­ter­ested in what hap­pens to war­ri­ors when they come back,” he said.