Dramatizing The Drone War

Ever since Stealth, drones have been blowing stuff up in Hollywood blockbusters from Iron Man 2 to Furious 7. But despite the increasing number of dramas about the War on Terror, it’s taken a while for less popcorny movies to focus on drone warfare’s ethical and psychological stakes. There are a few obvious explanations:

  1. It’s the most upsetting topic ever.
  1. No Americans are dying, so who cares?
  1. People looking at screens in air-conditioned rooms don’t make for good movie trailers.

All decent reasons to not make a drone movie from a business perspective. On the other hand, there’s a growing sense that when the history books are written, drone warfare’s civilian casualties will go down as indefensible war crimes. There have been a couple of documentaries on the subject (check out our feature on Drone, and the upcoming National Bird looks promising), but our culture would benefit from more movies that confront every frontier of America’s forever-war against Islamic extremism.

The past two years have given us our first English-language narrative features about drone warfare: 2014’s Good Kill, directed by Andrew Niccol, and 2016’s Eye In The Sky, directed by Gavin Hood. While neither is a Hollywood film (they’re independent and British, respectively), they can both be considered prototypes for “drone war” as a commercial genre. Looking at these films side-by-side can give us an idea of the unique challenges drone warfare poses to mainstream filmmakers.

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Let’s start with the similarities: both movies have lots of aerial POV shots and closeups of fingers on joystick triggers. Both are at least partially set outside of Vegas, where the Air Force’s drone program is set up. Both have closeups of people crying after they’ve bombed someone across the globe. Both make a point of showing the controversial “double tap” protocol. We’ll probably see a lot of those things in future drone movies.

That’s about it. These movies are really different in narrative scope and thematic takeaway.

The differences are apparent from the opening scenes. Good Kill starts with a drone POV shot before switching to an extreme closeup of Ethan Hawke, Drone Pilot’s eye. We hear the wind and the drone’s mechanical whine as Hawke communicates with his superiors about the suspected terrorists he’s observing. It’s only when he releases the missile and watches the explosion that the sound of the drone fades away and the camera pulls out to show him in front of a monitor: this is clearly going to be a movie about Hawke’s distance from the deaths he’s responsible for and the psychological toll of that distance. On the other hand, the first shot of Eye In The Sky tracks forward from inside a clay oven. After some ground-level establishing shots of a family in Nairobi going about their day, a crane shot takes us into the sky, looking down at their house. A truck of militants drives by; a digital target-sign appears on the truck; the target-sign turns into the movie’s title. We already know that this movie is going to be at least as concerned with the on-the-ground consequences of drone warfare as it is with the feelings of drone pilots.

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Good Kill‘s goal is to make you empathize with Ethan Hawke, and it’s admirably consistent in that mission. Except for a few cutaways to his wife, played by January Jones, we never leave the side of a former top gun who has been reduced to pushing buttons in this new frontier of war. Everyone tells him that he should be happy that he gets to spend more time with his family, but he hates his new position, and things only get worse when the CIA contracts his unit to carry out covert operations. His escalating disgust and self-loathing reflects the documented PTSD that many drone pilots feel, and it comes across effectively in tense early scenes where he’s forced to carry out immoral drone strikes.

Unfortunately, Good Kill‘s effective moments are bogged down by the same thing as many “issue movies:” sermonizing is prioritized over effective drama. All characters are stuck on a loop of “This is terrible” (Zoe Kravitz), “This is great, ‘murica!” (Jake Abel), or “This is a Serious Moral Issue but we have to kill them or they’ll kill us” (Bruce Greenwood). Hawke is already a drinker and absentee husband/father at the start of the movie, and we’re not given a reason to root for his home life besides “yay, nuclear family.” Instead of changing in a meaningful way, his situation just gets worse: he drinks more, drives around at night looking more morose, acts colder toward his wife. The CIA drone strikes take this one-dimensional escalation to a level that feels cartoonish, as each makes Hawke do something shittier than the last: “See that jeep? We know they have weapons. Prosecute the target. See that group of villagers trying to dig survivors out of the rubble? They’re terrorists too, prosecute the target. See that school bus? Prosecute the target.

I have no doubt that this is a more-or-less realistic depiction of how things go down for drone pilots. As the movie goes on, though, it feels manipulative and predictable. Some of the worst jobs in history are probably tedious and repetitive, but that doesn’t mean tedious repetition is how you tell those stories. Giving engaging dramatic agency to characters whose job it is to kill innocent people seems especially hard, and I’ll credit Good Kill for being the first movie to try for drone pilots. It doesn’t make its failure any less disappointing, though (I won’t even get into the nauseating way the movie “redeems” Hawke in the final scene; you can Wikipedia it if you really care).

One thing that struck me watching Good Kill was how difficult it is to embody ethical issues from the soldier’s point-of-view in drone films compared to ground combat films. In movies like The Hurt Locker and Platoon, where the viewer sticks to the same soldier or group of soldiers, we can still get nuanced portrayals of enemy combatants, civilians, and military officials that (arguably) critique the structure of war in a politically charged, emotionally affecting way. Not so in Good Kill, which ends up suffering from the lack of characterization of the strike victims and the CIA decision-makers. We never understand them as people, just as pixelated blurs and voices. Hawke’s detached nausea at the whole situation comes through, but the reason the pilots’ dialogue has to beat the dead horse of “drone warfare is ethically dubious” so much is that the filmmakers didn’t give themselves any options for making those points through intersecting character choices and conflicts.

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Enter Eye In The Sky, which takes the opposite approach of giving comparable attention to every player: the military generals, the politicians they report to, the drone pilots, the on-the-ground agents, and the innocent bystanders (the only characters without much screen time are the terrorists themselves). This wide lens makes Eye In The Sky more dramatically effective and politically salient than Good Kill, but it’s got issues of its own. The plot scenario explicitly invokes the trolley problem in philosophy: suicide bombers housed in a Nairobi suburb are plotting to kill upwards of 80 people. A joint British/American/Kenyan task force is in position to blow the house up, but a young girl (from the opening scene) is selling bread on the street corner outside, well within the blast radius. Should they risk killing the girl to save more lives?

Focusing on one drone strike instead of Good Kill’s merry-go-round of horrors lets the filmmakers pit a wide variety of moral perspectives against each other in ways that have actual dramatic repercussions. Helen Mirren and Alan Rickman play British defense hawks who are willing to cut corners and pressure superiors to get the job done, cute kid be damned. Aaron Paul is a newbie drone pilot who hasn’t killed anyone. Jorah Mormont from Game Of Thrones is a British minister who hems and haws when the choice is put to him. The whole thing is like a game of hot potato, where no one wants to…

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…oh, alright. Well, it’s like that. Lots of fast-paced ethical and procedural arguments that escalate the tension as the clock races. There are no villains. Helen Mirren wants to nuke the girl, but she’s not a one-dimensional blowhard, she’s someone who’s seen a lot of shit and believes this to be the best solution. Aaron Paul wants to put off taking the kill shot as long as possible, but he’s operating within the rules too, not some deserter afraid of his duty. Instead of one-dimensionally hammering its point, this movie wants you to wrestle with each side. It’s a great film in the “audience as jury” tradition of Otto Preminger.

That’s not even mentioning the movie’s biggest strength: its representation of the Kenyan characters and setting. Disclaimer: I don’t know anything about Kenya, so I have no means of gauging the accuracy or cultural specificity of the film. That said, director Gavin Hood is South African, and he along with his collaborators clearly went into this project with the intent to consciously avoid Othering, generalizing, and judging the African setting like so many Western movies do. The girl’s family is portrayed as middle-class folks trying to get by; there’s no moment of “how could they make Alia sell bread on a street corner? So sad, this country must suck.“ The film’s continuous scenes of haggling in open markets show it as business-as-usual, a custom the viewer doesn’t need to have an opinion on. Exposition tells us that some of the terrorists are American and British, and the Sharia-enforcing militants in the Nairobi suburb don’t represent the citizenry. Hell, this is a spy movie, and the only person we see do any badass spy stuff is Barkhad Abdi, a Somali actor who makes a convincing case that he should get his own Bourne franchise.

This isn’t just checking a box of “good PC representation,” it’s flipping the rules of storytelling in war and spy movies set in “exotic” countries. Every War on Terror movie I’ve seen has multiple scenes where soldiers say, “Is that guy on his phone with the terrorists? Does that woman in hijab have a suicide vest??” This makes sense, we’re aligned with soldiers in combat, but it necessitates turning places and people into props in an America-centric narrative. Eye In The Sky is the first non-Western-set War on Terror movie I’ve seen in which Westerners are disruptors of order, not bringers of order or people trying to make do in chaos they’re not directly responsible for. Chris Kyle can pass the buck, Ethan Hawke can pass the buck, but the soldiers in this movie can’t.

So that’s all well and good…yeah. Here’s the thing. If you’ve read any of the leaked info on America’s drone program, which I don’t think is out of the question for the average viewer, you realize pretty early that the central drama in this movie doesn’t reflect the drone war as it exists. Yes, there are scenes of American hawks treating the strike as if it weren’t even a question, but they’re on the periphery of the debate given that it’s under British command. If one variable in Eye In The Sky were different—if it were a strictly U.S. operation, if the house were in an unfriendly country or even a more rural part of Kenya, if Aaron Paul were used to killing people—this movie would be over in fifteen minutes. “You said they have suicide vests? Uh, prosecute the target.“ The End. Even though the deck-stacking the movie has to do to put off the strike is justified in the story world, you see the seams. The rigamarole, played for laughs a few times, is less funny when you think about when it doesn’t happen. Also, Alan Rickman’s sonorous intonation of “Never tell a soldier that he does not know the cost of war” is powerful, but is it always true in a world where drone pilots are recruited from competitive gaming circuits? Eye In The Sky is a well-crafted, boundary-pushing movie, but it’s not the movie the American drone war deserves.

Not that any movie can “do justice” to a war, but contrasting these films teaches us how a politically informed and dramatically effective film might be made about the American drone program. Sticking with the soldiers is not enough. And if the trigger fingers are as indiscriminate as Wikileaks and The Intercept say, the story needs to centralize the lives of people in places like Waziristan and Somalia, where diplomatic ties don’t prevent America from pissing all over the Fourth Geneva Convention. If America has the resources to launch Hellfire missiles at people thousands of miles away without breaking a sweat, maybe eventually we’ll have the resources to make movies and TV about other cultures that involve actual research of those peoples’ experiences (or at least someone on set who reads and speaks the local languages). Maybe then we’ll have a movie that tells our descendants, yes, we knew what we were doing.

Correction: this article originally misprinted the title of “National Bird” as “American Bird.”

Correction 2: confused Jorah and Davos in “Game Of Thrones.” Super upset with myself for this one.


Kells is an Oakland native with a sad compulsion tabsolutely no relation to r. kelly.o put his opinions online. He hopes that you like them, but what’s really important is that you like yourself. @awkeller510

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