When people express concern about drone warfare, it’s virtually always the potential for long-distance indifference that has them worried. Killing people by remote control from thousands of miles away, they argue, is too much like playing a video game; the victims aren’t even perceived as human beings, making it all too easy to mentally justify blowing them to pieces. Drones, a claustrophobic two-hander about a couple of drone pilots faced with an ethical dilemma, initially appears to tackle that very subject, opening with one of the pilots playing a shoot-’em-up video game and making various flippant remarks. Oddly enough, however, the film winds up taking precisely the opposite stance. These are pilots who care too damn much, hesitating to pull the trigger when they can see the collateral damage that’s likely to result.
Naturally, each one has a backstory. Lieutenant Sue Lawson (Eloise Mumford, soon to be better known as Kate Kavanagh in Fifty Shades Of Grey) is a general’s daughter whose dreams of becoming a fighter pilot were dashed when she suffered a partially detached retina during a boxing match. Airman Jack Bowles (Matt O’Leary, who played The Brain in Brick) still suffers from the memory of a previous strike that resulted in the deaths of an innocent mother and child, though he pretends not to think about it. By dramatically convenient chance, Sue’s first day on the job happens to coincide with the sudden appearance, following weeks of fruitless surveillance, of a high-value target: Al-Qaeda operative Mahmoud Khalil (Amir Khalighi), who shows up for what looks like his birthday party. Does taking him out justify the murder of all the civilian revelers surrounding him, including several kids and a newborn infant? Should a military officer disobey direct orders when those orders conflict with the dictates of conscience? Is this entire movie going to be confined to one small trailer in the middle of the Nevada desert?
The answer to the last question, alas, is yes. Drones doesn’t appear to have been adapted from a stage play, but that’s clearly where this material belongs—not just because of the single location, but because screenwriter Matt Witten’s didactic, confrontational dialogue is ideally suited to the theater. Even in that context, though, it’d be hard to swallow the implausible plot twist that sees Sue and Jack abruptly switch sides, with the one who’d refused to launch the missile (even when threatened with a charge of treason) now eager to lay waste to everything in sight, and vice versa. Mumford and O’Leary struggle to make sense of their characters, but are stymied by a script that regards them primarily as mouthpieces for talking points that, again, aren’t even the points anyone’s using when talking about drone warfare. Challenging conventional wisdom has its place, but Drones is the equivalent of an issue-driven movie about the NSA featuring agents who feel really creepy about spying on people. That’s not the problem.