Drone investigates the murkiest of moral and legal grey areas in modern warfare. “It’s out of a bad science fiction novel,” says Brandon Bryant, a former drone operator, towards the end of the film, and yet it seems most of us are resigned to this new reality. Governments targeting and killing people thousands of miles away without a declaration of war and without a trial is and should be troubling; the bigger the distance between the button pushers and the button’s effect, it seems, the easier it is to get away with.
Drone is best when it’s closing this distance. Norwegian director Tonje Hessen Schei tackles the issue with remarkable breadth – human rights lawyers, US administration lawyers, former drone operators, drone strike survivors, journalists, authors and even a drone manufacturer are all featured – and while the film does suffer occasionally from a lack of focus, it’s mostly about making real the human cost (on both sides) of drones and how the victims can fight such a lopsided battle.
Legal challenges and discussions at the UN aside (both are up against the CIA’s secrecy and lack of accountability), the most effective way is through images: residents of Waziristan, the region of Pakistan where most drone attacks occur, print photographs of victims to put on their roofs for drone operators to see, and at a protest Clive Stafford Smith, a human rights lawyer, tells a reporter that the media are key to putting a human face on drone victims.
Drone never quite reaches a level of self-awareness where it can see itself as part of this information war, and as a result it falls down in a few places where robust facts and arguments should have taken the place of scare-mongering. Video games that feed into the military-industrial complex are mentioned, but without specific examples or clear connections to drone warfare. There’s also a strange digression into how drone warfare will lead to fully automated warfare, targets decided by algorithm or artificial intelligence, and it’s a classic slippery slope argument based on little more than speculation. The slight imbalance in focus on the white, Western people involved is either a problematic oversight or a cynical resignation to the fact that audiences are more likely to care about people who look like them. Otherwise, however, it presents a compelling and disturbing case for holding those in charge of American drones to account.
Drone is out now on DVD and video-on-demand.