Reviewed by: Jennie Kermode

"This could have been a simple story about heroism in the face of a soul-destroying system. It's a credit to all involved that it manages to be something more."

It's said that art flourishes within constraints, which is why some of the best cinematic work is made on very tight budgets. The budget for Drones hasn't been revealed but it's just the kind of piece writers come up with in that situation essentially a two-hander, set almost entirely in one room. As its story develops, trips outside that room come to seem unreal, just as the wider world becomes unreal to its protagonists. Perhaps that's what their commanders want. Their job is to pilot drone aircraft, drop bombs on suspected terrorists and relate to this as if it were a video game.

Eloise Mumford is Sue, a newbie to the job, kicked out of flight school due to an injury. She's trained to drop bombs on people directly, to relish the adrenaline of combat, following in the footsteps of the father she adores. Already stationed in the room is Jack (Matt O'Leary), who is happy with his lot (or so he likes to tell himself) and doesn't want some know-it-all hot shot spoiling it. At first, he subjects Sue to incessant abuse, trying to find a way to get under her skin. Then the two begin to bond. And then their bond is tested. Gathering on a rooftop far away in Afghanistan, quite unaware that they are watching, are a group of people - men, women and children - preparing for a birthday party. One of them, they are told, is an international terrorist who plans to murder thousands of Americans. Their job is to kill him right away - with as few civilian casualties as possible, but as many as necessary.

Copy picture

Sue says no.

This could have been a simple story about heroism in the face of a soul-destroying system. It's a credit to all involved that it manages to be something more. Over the remaining hour of the film's duration, every aspect of the situation is explored, yet it continue to feel natural. Sue's superiors try to get under her skin as Jack did. Jack tries to extricate himself from the situation but finds himself drawn back in, both through orders and through discovering unexpected things within himself. Yet ultimately, the choices the two make don't seem to mean very much. What becomes apparent is their smallness, their remoteness, like that of the people on the roof.

With drone combat quite well established by now, it's surprising that there has been so little cinematic exploration of this area. Though Drones sometimes feels like a stage play, the ability of the camera to immerse us in what's happening on their small plane's-eye screen justifies its presence on the big screen and ads a layer of irony as the audience is simultaneously watching, judging and trying to second-guess them. Its strength comes from the fact that it doesn't rely on the easy emotive line that people's lives are in the hands of kids who see combat as nothing more than a game. Rather, it questions the assumption that it's possible to separate soldiers from the wars they are fighting. Technology may have made some of them safe from bullets and explosions, but it can't protect them from the emotional damage that comes with taking others' lives. And unlike some other war films, this one remembers that the other side are human.

Solidly acted (especially by O'Leary), Drones is occasionally heavy handed but succeeds well in managing tension and keeping audience attention focused. It's a modest but important film that deserves attention.

Reviewed on: 26 Jun 2014
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Two soldiers are asked to kill a man using a remotely operated drone, but the situation is complicated.

Director: Rick Rosenthal

Writer: Matt Witten

Starring: Amir Khalighi, Matt O'Leary, Whip Hubley, William Russ, Eloise Mumford, Nishi Munshi, Vivan Dugré, Treasure Mallory, Drea Garcia, Don Abernathy

Year: 2013

Runtime: 82 minutes

Country: US


London 2013

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