Good intentions don't translate to good filmmaking in this scatterbrained examination of drone warfare.
Drone (Hot Docs Review)
The fact that armed drones have changed the face of warfare might not be common knowledge, but drones have wormed their way into pop culture and the general American consciousness; the grainy eagle-eye view popularized by video games, the bulbous head unmistakable, and the panic inducing concept of the Amazon drone. The point is, drones are here to stay, and Tonje Hessen Schei’s new documentary Drone seeks to explore the consequences of fighting a war from 10,000 miles away.
At its heart, Drone is centered in two places: with former drone operator Brandon Bryant as he speaks out against the US governments abuse of power, and human rights lawyers Shahzad Akbar and Clive Stafford Smith as they push to get media attention for victims of drone strikes in the Pakistani province of Waziristan. Spliced into these narratives are dozens of experts, from former military advisors to those who produce drones for the government. The portrait painted over the 79 minute doc (two breezier versions exist: a 58 minute cut, and a 10 minute one) is a tragic and complex one, rooted in the inherent value of human life and how it should be judged in a time of war. The ideas and questions asked are, ultimately, necessary, and have, for the most part, been ignored and swept under the rug—all of which makes Drone feel like a let down.
Schei has worked with humanitarian issues in the past, even directing a film festival based around the subject, and she sticks with it here. The film is pragmatic and refuses to shy away from the toughest questions concerning drones, while never forgetting the tragedy that sparked the war on terror. The trouble is that Drone never quite focuses anywhere. The film stops and starts at random, shifting between Bryant doing a press tour to Akbar and Smith petitioning the high court of Pakistan without any connective tissue. It’s as though Schei had too much to talk about (and all of it should be talked about), but couldn’t quite make it all fit without just tossing it in the bag at random; all of it interesting on its own, but jarred wildly by the constant gear shifts. Neither of the two main threads have much of a narrative either until the final minutes of the film, which keeps the film from becoming grounded or tense in an important way.
Drone is a movie that should be watched, and the conversations therein discussed. It is a well-intentioned film, and it’s packed with the horrific truths of America’s human rights abuses. But there’s a sense that Drone was built around the passion of its ideas (though it shouldn’t be faulted for that), not with any calculated structure or intentional direction. The result is a scatterbrained and tension-less film that still must be watched and talked about.