The way America fights its battles is changing. Gone are the Top Gun days of ace fighter pilots and aerial dogfights, replaced by somebody miles away in a bunker punching a few buttons like a video game. And so the face of Hollywood movies on war must also evolve to reflect the prevalence of drone technology, and the questionable ethics behind their use in the Middle East and beyond, of which there have been thousands of strikes on terrorists at the cost of hundreds of civilian lives. There are no easy answers when it comes to their use, and while Rick Rosenthal’s Drones has the balls to attack the issue head on, the lack of nuance in tackling a complex issue undermines his efforts and that of a game cast.
Rosenthal, a veteran filmmaker best recognized for directing a pair of Halloween films, is better at ratcheting up tension than exploring subtleties. Essentially a two-hander set in a sweltering bunker in the Nevada desert, Lt. Sue Lawson (Eloise Mumford) has arrived for her first day of work as a drone pilot, having just been kicked out of flight school due to an injury. The daughter of a 4-star general, Sue has been dealing with claims of privilege and favoritism for years, but she still gets bent out of shape when her more experienced subordinate Jack Bowles (Matt O’Leary) gives her a hard time about it. He’s a boisterous, chauvinistic jerk but a talented one, and he shows her the ropes while training the drones targets on a the home of a presumed Middle Eastern terrorist. When he arrives at the monitored location for a secret visit, an ethical battle erupts as to whether they should nuke him and the civilians into oblivion.
At barely over an hour in length and featuring primarily two characters, Drones is a small-budget effort that seems more like a one-act play than a feature film. That's actually how it was initially conceived by screenwriter Matt Witten, who clearly wants to present a thoughtful examination of the subject matter but too often resorts to Hollywood extremes. Lawson and Bowles come to verbal and eventually physical blows as she begins to question orders, while he seems eager to rack up another kill. The purity of their ideology; she's a bleeding heart liberal and he's a "shoot first" war hawk; doesn't leave a lot of room for the deft examination a story like this demands. As their arguments rage inconsistently and ludicrous complications arise out of nowhere to add hackneyed dramatic effect, all value is lost in what had been meaningful subject. But these are script problems and not the fault of Rosenthal and his cast. Rosenthal effectively thrusts us into the hot box where life or death decisions are being made every day by those who will never see the effects up close. Mumford, who is due to make a big splash next year in Fifty Shades of Grey, is especially good as the conflicted Lawson trying to weigh military loyalty and national security against her personal beliefs. O'Leary is initially solid as her pesky colleague but he's less effective later on when called on to be more forceful.
With so little margin for error, Drones is unable to overcome a poor script that undercooks an elaborate, contemporary issue.
NOTE: For more on Drones and Fifty Shades of Grey, check out my interview with Eloise Mumford by going here.