There would be no Q & A for “Drones,” it was announced shortly before its unveiling at AFI Fest, because director Rick Rosenthal would be holding a seminar shortly after on microbudget filmmaking. In fact, for those who attended the screening, there may not have been the need because of how “Drones” is a veritable master class in getting the most bang for a buck, employing one sparse location, two formidable actors as its leads and letting the chips fall where they may with an edgy script.
Ironically, I suspect “Drones” won’t age well for the same reasons it’s so provocative now, though its virtues are downright classical. As the first to build an entire film around the morality of the unmanned weaponized aircrafts, “Drones” joins a tradition of thrillers dating back to the Atomic era about whether or not to press the kill button with no consequences except for the conscience. But “Drones” adds a new wrinkle with its contemplation of geographical disconnect and the gender politics between its two leads, Jack Bowles (Matt O’Leary), a flippant, self-described grunt who “barely graduated high school,” and Sue Lawson (Eloise Mumford), a steely lieutenant who is a detached retina away from her true calling as a fighter pilot.
The latter holds rank in this scenario and has an additional card over Bowles in being a general’s daughter, though she is loathe to use it. Instead, she’s determined to use her wits to get through her first day in a stuffy trailer on an Air Force Base in Nevada, where the air conditioning breaks down and she’s forced to endure her motormouth partner. The temperature only rises while the two, who have a birds’ eye view of a Middle Eastern target, attempt to identify and ultimately execute a man with connections to Al Qaeda from a million miles away. The task is complicated by the increasing number of the man’s relatives who surround him, including several young children, and growing doubt about what kind of threat he actually poses.
Yet his identity is more or less irrelevant as “Drones” reveals more about its two main characters whose loyalties shift as the situation evolves. “Drones” is at its best when it focuses on its characters rather than the broader event at hand, relying on the strong repartee between Mumford and O’Leary and the philosophical differences between the characters based on their past experiences to create high drama. When Matt Witten’s screenplay occasionally drifts into more generalized arguments about the use of drones, the film is less convincing and the duo’s blowhard superior (Whip Hubley), who is piped in via satellite, is almost laughably broad in his kill ’em all orders. Still, the scenario is designed well enough and dripping with enough authentic details that it’s easy to look past the places where it pushes the limits of credibility, instead pushing the envelope in offering a complex and intriguing consideration of modern war.