Director: Gavin Hood
Writer: Guy Hibbert
Cinematographer: Haris Zambarloukos
by Jon Cvack
I didn’t know anything about this movie until I had seen its 94% Rotten Tomato rating, saw something about drones, didn't watch a preview or read a synopsis and headed to a matinee. The story involves two Air Force pilots, 2nd Lt. Steve Watts (Aaron Paul) and A1C Carrie Gershon (Phoebe Fox; I didn’t know what a A1C was, which is kind of interesting), as they fly a drone plane from what looks like an elaborate storage shed meets the opening scene from War Games. They are doing reconnaissance on a terrorist cell, who they follow to site and discover is about to carry out a suicide mission. The mission is under British Control, led by Colonel Katherine Powell (Helen Mirren), a hawk who’s admonishing her superior Lt. General Frank Benson (Alan Rickman) to allow the strike, who’s monitoring the mission with what I thought was the Prime Minister, but am not seeing this title, so let’s just say senior members of the British Government who have final say in whether or not to carry out the killing.
I’ll admit I was kind of bored at first, as the story felt much more out of a television show than a movie, especially given how well films like The Hurt Locker, Zero Dark Thirty, and Lone Survivor have been at showing us the modern military in the middle east. Something about this felt a bit cheap. Soon though, we discover that this film is essentially a moral drama, most closely aligned with Dr. Strangelove, and while not nearly as funny, still humorous.
The central issues are twofold:
1) When a little girl enters the target’s killzone, an ethical debate enters into the equation - given that these are men seem to be gearing up to launch a suicide attack, likely targeted toward hundreds of civilians, is it worth taking a single innocent girl’s life?
2) Given how the bureaucracy works, where they essentially lucked out that the suspects didn’t leave earlier before a choice was made, should a decision of this sort face so many hurdles, rather than presiding beneath a single person.
Looking at the first - I had a recently taken a Coursera class on "Terrorism and Counterterrorism", which was a bit too focused on policy, data, and research rather than history, sociology, philosophy, or psychology of terrorists (which I’d still love to see); essentially it’s about twice as long as it should be given the material. Still, it does reveal some interesting ideas on how to combat terrorism, with one focused on the “Decapitation Theory”, which involves killing the leadership in the hopes of dismantling the group. Even though there’s little hard data on terrorist strategies and results (this seemed to be the point of the course; in the end they conclude that we need more research and information and money to fund that research and information), they did discover that the decapitation theory doesn’t really work for religious extremists. Unlike more politically engaged terrorists, religious leaders are often recruited because of their philosophies and charisma, centered around horizontal organizations where numerous cells operate with near full autonomy in order to prevent breakdowns in the organization and its intelligence. Unlike military or even business managers, there’s no clear set of guidelines, whether in terms of war, profit, or hierarchy. Thus, when you kill one, it’s not very difficult for another to replace that individual, as there could be tens or hundreds more at the same level that we or the original leader don’t know about.
And so it’s interesting that, in the film, they were so committed to killing the suspects, especially when one of them was an American Citizen, who seemed ex-military a la Bowe Bergdahl, abandoning her post and providing intelligence. The British can’t kill her without American approval and it was here that we got some pretty subtle and clever satire, as rather than having the Americans deliberate like their British allies, the obvious Republican leadership immediately orders the kill. Still, there’s the little girl on the ground.
What I enjoyed most was how each side was shown fairly. I found myself switching positions, and was excited to talk to others who’ve seen the film and see what they thought. It’s the classic utilitarian argument - a train’s about to kill your sister who’s tied to the train tracks, but you can pull the lever and the tracks will switch and kill five strangers.* Personally, I think that, in the end, they had to launch the missile. We don’t know if they were going to kill anyone, but all signs pointed in that direction. It was a question of probability. If the terrorists were going to blow themselves up in a populated area, then the little girl was a necessary casualty in order to save others. And I’m glad they talked about it as long as they did, allowing us to see all the perspectives. It’s the type of film you’d like to see with someone from the other side of aisle, as I imagine the things we have in agreement might outweigh the tiny differences. At the end of the day, life is being lost. I think everyone wants the best way to minimize that.
*And I’m aware of alternatives - but when considered, such as, waiting for the group to leave and enter their car, and maybe they might exit town and find a more secluded road for the strike. Perhaps they should have discussed this. The point is, the house was muffling the explosions, and we don’t know if they were just going to blow themselves right outside the home. It seemed any result beyond killing them in the home would have produced a higher rate of casualties.
Continue onto Part 2...
BELOW: A brief breakdown of both sides
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