“Drones” is a middling real-time thriller that chronicles a fictive crisis for two Air Force personnel, who find themselves at loggerheads when they spot an apparent terrorist thousands of miles away on surveillance video. Should they annihilate him with a button-push, no matter the cost in additional civilian lives? Originally conceived as a play by scenarist Matt Witten, the pic is efficiently helmed by veteran Rick Rosenthal (making his first bigscreen feature since 1988), but feels like an action movie struggling to escape being a single-interior two-hander. Limited theatrical launch June 27 will serve primarily to boost awareness of the pic’s simultaneous VOD/iTunes release; cable sales are possible.
Lt. Sue Lawson (Eloise Mumford) aced flight school but has been temporarily grounded due to an eye injury. Ergo, it’s her first day sweltering in a Nevada base trailer where she and more experienced subordinate Bowles (Matt O’Leary) share a shift monitoring the generally dull goings-on at a rural Middle Eastern location where the family of a highly sought-after terrorist lives. That actual target’s whereabouts are unknown, but Lawson guesses, from a flurry of seemingly innocuous activity, that he might in fact be about to arrive for a rare clandestine visit.
Bowles is eager to nuke the mofo, as are their superiors; it would provide a triumph for the U.S. military at a moment when there’s been much bad news amid our seemingly neverending post-9/11 military engagements abroad. Lawson, however, begins to question whether the visitor really is the man they’re looking for — or, even if he is, whether that man is actually the Al Qaeda operative claimed by U.S. intel. Either way, a dozen civilians, including women and children, will die along with him if the drone strike goes ahead.
Lawson’s crisis of conscience and rising tension with the gung-ho Bowles (not to mention their long-distance commanders) should be enough to sustain a drama that lasts just over 70 minutes, not including opening/closing credits. But the screenplay goes overboard piling on too many other late-breaking complications, including a contrived personal tie between Lawson and the target, a role reversal and then a physical fight between the leads. All this “Bourne”-level intrigue feels excessive in a story otherwise so tightly focused in temporal and spatial terms.
Also problematic is the central character dynamic, whether due to writing, thesping or both. (The only other notable speaking roles go to Whip Hubley and William Russ as high-ranking officials who communicate via monitor.) Lawson chafes at Bowles’ jokey belittling of her gender and privilege (as a four-star general’s daughter), yet too soon lives up to the proffered female stereotype of not being “equipped to make cold, strategic decisions.” If she’s been raised in a military family and gotten this far career-wise (with honors), why does she let a self-described “hotshot punk who barely graduated high school” rattle her so easily?
Both pic and performer oversell the queasy greenhorn thing early on, undercutting the punch of the character’s later moral qualms. O’Leary, excellent in the recent indie sleepers “Fat Kid Rules the World” and “Natural Selection,” is OK in a role that doesn’t reveal or require much beyond its first impressions.
Brief breaks in the Nevada desert and frequent views of the unspecified (Afghanistan?) locale transmitted via satellite can only do so much to alleviate the claustrophobic concept. Nonetheless, Rosenthal, his d.p. son Noah, and editor Michelle M. Witten maintain a decent amount of tension, considerably boosted by Cody Westheimer’s anxious score.