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.