"I think you're going to be intensely affected by the movie you're about to see," Sen. Jeff Merkley said to an audience awaiting the Washington, D.C., premiere of "Drones," a taut film about the use and morality of unmanned drones in combat zones. The Oregon Democrat wasn't kidding.
As the screen went black after the final frame of the movie, when a young Air Force officer makes her decision about whether to launch Hellfire missiles at a terrorism suspect who happens to be surrounded by a favorite euphemism, "collateral damage," the audience at Tuesday night's show at Landmark's E Street Cinema was audibly moved in its reaction.
"This is a film people seem to want to stay and talk about," director Rick Rosenthal had said earlier, referring to previous screenings in places as far away as London and California. As the United States begins to draw down troops in places such as Afghanistan, all the while continuing to invest in unmanned aerial vehicles, the movie is being released at a time of debate over the future of warfare itself. The crowd that stayed to discuss the film with Rosenthal seemed to think so.
"I think the argument for drones is very sound," Rosenthal, a veteran filmmaker who once interned for the late Sen. Thomas Dodd, D-Conn., said earlier in the day, a sentiment he echoed in the post-screening Q-and-A session. "Being able to execute foreign policy without boots on the ground; it's both appealing and alarming," he added.
The promise of it, as laid out in the movie, is the idea of precision killing and minimizing the taking of human lives. The peril, also laid out in the movie, is the lack of ground-level intelligence that leads to judgment calls that have to be made thousands of miles away, as well as the psychological toll on people who lead relatively unseen attacks and who, despite the best of effort, still make mistakes.
"We must keep in mind there are tradeoffs in anything," Merkley said, adding that the movie asks audiences to confront such tradeoffs and that the United States isn't likely to have advanced UAV technology and capabilities to itself for long.
Rosenthal, whose credits include such films as "Distant Thunder" and "Russkies," keeps the story tight in "Drones," which takes place during an intense few hours as two Air Force UAV pilots — played by Eloise Mumford and Matt O'Leary — try to determine the best course of action in pursuing, and possibly killing, a high value target half a world away. Rosenthal recalled that audiences have been split on the questions raised in the film, such as whether to pursue the target with the information they had.
Without giving away the ending, Rosenthal's comments about the stories he pursues offers a tip on how the characters react to the situation they are in. "I'm attracted to stories about redemption and underdogs," he said. And redemption, in an increasingly depersonalized war theater, might be harder and harder to come by.