In the language of detached warfare, a wife, parents, and three kids can be called 'several unidentified terror suspects' and this is the fulcrum on which Drones balances. The film is largely a two-hander, in which an experienced drone 'pilot', Jack (Matt O'Leary) who is a mere airman, is breaking in a new pilot, Lieutenant Sue Lawson, who not only has 'washed out' of pilot school at the US Air Force Academy because of a detached retina caused while boxing, but is also the daughter of a general. On their first day together, they spot that a wanted Al Queda terrorist Mahmoud Khalil will soon be showing up at a house their drone has under surveillance. Showing up to see his children and celebrate his birthday. And after one false alarm, which irritates the folks at CentCom (central command), they are given orders to kill him when he does arrive.
But killing him will involve taking out his family, in fact, all the people who show up, with a goat to barbeque, for the party, some dozen civilians, or 'potential terrorists'. And as she thinks about it, Sue decides she will not kill innocents, not even to take out a top terror target.
Drones plays out like a play, at times almost as didactic, though the film opens out in a curious way, through the two screens on which the 'pilots' watch the drone's cameras, and the third screen on which their superiors communicate with them. It's interesting the way director Rick Rosenthal handles those screens, because we never see the people from the drone's-eye view in close up until the film's final moments of denouement (I'm not sure anyone actually hits a zoom button, like those crime films where surveillance camera footage always seems to come with a director), which stands in sharp contrast to the closer shots we get of the commanding office, and then of Sue's father.
The film builds its arguments carefully and subtly; although they're in the middle of the Nevada desert, in a trailer, they wear flight suits, as if they were 'real' pilots; Jack is obviously playing Top Gun in his mind. The point that they are conducting war via video game is obvious; they even send out for pizza, which gets delivered at exactly the moment of most tension. The planes flying overhead, from the nearby airbase, remind Sue of what is now out of reach for her. The film plays carefully with chain of command issues; she outranks Jack, but he is the experienced pilot; she is also better educated and tougher, but he is still a man and she a woman.
But the biggest issue is what is acceptable in the 'war' on terror. Sue soon realises that Khalil might not be an Al Queda terrorist at all, but merely a dissenter our Pakistani allies wish to see eliminated. Her father was a bomber pilot in Vietnam; her issue with killing civilians is really a question of sight; were she an actual pilot dropping bombs or firing rockets, she would create far more 'collateral damage', but she would not have first seen the people she was killing. And the film's reversal hinges on what her father tells Sue about the terrorist, and about his connection with the 911 attacks in which, coincidentally, her mother and brother were killed. It is Jack who believes what the audience may suspect: that Sue's father, at this moment of greatest familial candor, is lying to her. Meanwhile, armed MPs wait outside the trailer to storm it, arrest one or both of them, and carry out their mission should either of them, in the end, refuse.
The film ends abruptly, with the decision, and without chasing down the ramifications of it, but that leaves the debate uppermost in the audience's mind. That it is settled by the personal, emotion argument, rather than the moral, political, or military one, is a bit of a cop-out, but its arguments have been made, and the audience is therefore free to decide for themselves, agree or disagree as they see fit.
Rosenthal builds his tensions nicely, and with the caveat about the turnaround, Matt Witten's script is taut. Director Rick Rosenthal was a cinematographer himself; his son Noah's camera on this film sets the outdoor scene lovingly, but does a nice job within the confines of the cabin, and with the two screens: when they are dealing with Col. Wallace (the excellent Whip Hubley) there is more than a slight reminder of Dr. Strangelove. William Russ, as General Lawson, is also excellent in his small part.
But the film depends on its two leads. Eloise Mumford is excellent, only occasionally less than fully convincing; her moral stance at the start would be something you'd expect she would have confronted at some point earlier, growing up in a military family, attending the Air Force Academy, suffering loss in 911. It's a quick conversion, and when she becomes a daughter again, her vulnerability plays against the character she needed to set up, as if she's almost too good for the part. Matt O'Leary as Jack is even better; he nails his role, the underlying weakness, the macho pretense, and, just like Mumford, he needs to present a conversion, based on his experience with own problematic father, which doesn't quite come off. In both cases, praticality, the reality of the military, gets lost within the deeply personal, rather than the personally ethical. It's what stops the film from being something major, rather than just thought-provoking and suspenseful, which isn't bad.