Drone [Hot Docs 2015]

Adam A. Donaldson

Reviewed by:
On April 27, 2015
Last modified:April 27, 2015


Tonje Hessen Schei's Drone takes a long hard look at the implications of the War on Terror's supposed super weapon, and it's mostly effective in making the viewer think twice about their use.

Drone [Hot Docs 2015]


Recently, the news has been filled with stories about the Islamic State, the group of Sunni extremists who control territory in Iraq and Syria and are threatening to expand into other areas of the Middle East. The ferocity and the theocracy of ISIL has brought attention back to the conflict in the region thanks to their repeated acts of barbarism, and there’s concern that further military adventures in Iraq and neighboring countries might be necessary to stop them. Here’s the thing, though: the War on Terror never really took a break. The troops came home, yes, but in 21st century warfare, the troops need not necessarily be in the theater of war to do damage.

The simply named Norwegian documentary Drone takes a serious and unflinching look at one of the things that truly changed the face of warfare: unmanned aerial devices, or, as they’re more commonly known, drones. It should go without saying that director Tonje Hessen Schei isn’t a fan. Ask the average person about drones, and you’ll probably get some mixed feelings on their use and the morality of using machines to rain fire on people by pilots who are safely ensconced in bunkers several thousand miles away. Schei wants to make the case that not only is drone warfare immoral, but it’s another example of how we’re letting technology outpace the legal and ethical framework to govern their use.

In its totality, Drone walks right up to the line of polemic. Mostly though, the drive of the film comes from the genuine concern that a lot of faith is being put into machines that theoretically have no human toll, be it in unnecessary civilian deaths or the physical and emotional damage done to the soldiers using them. Civilian activists in Pakistan struggle to prove that so called “smart bombs” seem to kill a lot of innocent people as they aim to eliminate individual terrorists. Meanwhile, stateside, a former Air Force pilot struggles with post-traumatic stress disorder, crippled by the fact he’s killed civilians and it was as easy as a push of the button.

The negatives of drone warfare have been addressed in other documentaries. Perhaps most famously was the Academy Award-nominated Dirty Wars, which followed investigative journalist Jeremy Scahill and his inquiries into drone strikes against al-Qaeda in Yemen. Scahill’s pre-occupation in Dirty Wars was with the secret prosecution of wars overseas, with drones being an incidental detail. But Schei goes deep into how drones became a huge part of the military’s arsenal, how maybe they’re being misused, and how their use by America offers a misleading sense of security.

Schei’s style is very analytical, very middle of the road and very objective. Sure, part of his thesis is that drones are just generally bad, but the devil, as they say, is in the details. I can’t imagine it’s easy to be clinical in talking to Pakistani lawyers trying to make a case against the United States for war crimes related to the constant roar of drones overhead, nor would it be a walk in the park to talk to kids who’ve lost family members to drones, or are unable to play outside or even go to school out of fear of drones. One of the most disturbing shots of the film is a drone’s eye view over the Waziristan province where activists have put large posters on the roofs of homes featuring pictures of the family living inside. The hope is that the drone operator might think twice before opening their guns after seeing who they else they might be killing inside the building.

The dehumanizing nature of drone warfare is a fairly big component of Drone. Schei draws compelling parallels between “militainment,” military-themed movies and video games, and the automated warfare of drone operation which seems set up purposefully to make users feel like they’re in a real-life video game. One analyst points out that the military isn’t looking to make Top Guns anymore, they’re looking for “players” with natural ability. If it’s not bad enough that the victims of drone warfare are treated so cheaply, then those controlling it are now a more highly valued commodity then the people who had to train and learn for years to become the vanguard of the warrior class.

About the only question that Drone doesn’t answer is: what are we to do about it? Aside from the usual push for transparency and openness, a drum beat that feels both deafening and like white noise in the background, the movie makes the point that we shouldn’t see drones as a savior from war, but merely another tool on the frontline. For those that feel drones make them safe, one expert points out that no weapon in history has ever been used by one country and only one country alone. What happens when others develop drones as well as the United States and decide to start flying them over American cities? If you watch the news, you know that there are already issues with people misusing drones which are still unregulated by the FAA.

That final point is punctuated with foreboding shots of American landmarks as if to say, “They’ve coming…” It’s the only real false note that I think Drone hits, and the only time it feels like it’s talking down to the audience. Schei’s clinical detachment effectively makes its case, and gives the viewer a lot to think about concerning the pros and cons (mostly cons) of drone warfare. Mostly though, Drone feels like it’s part of a debate we’re not having, and that’s kind of scary, because drones are constantly buzzing over the heads of thousands of kids and to them, they’re not interesting gizmos on the cutting edge of technology, they’re winged death.