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NY TIMES Review: ‘National Bird’ Follows Whistle-Blowers in America’s Drone War

NY TIMES Review: ‘National Bird’ Follows Whistle-Blowers in America’s Drone War

If we can eliminate enemy threats without placing boots on a battlefield, then why not do so? That’s one of the unspoken questions raised, and largely unanswered, by “National Bird,” Sonia Kennebeck’s elegantly unsettling documentary about the United States’ reliance on aerial combat drones.

The weapons themselves, though, demand less of her attention than their psychological impact on three former operators and current whistle-blowers. Identified only by first names (though one full name is visible in a shot of a 2013 exposé in The Guardian), all three were involved in some form of top-secret data analysis and the tracking of targets. Justifiably nervous, they wear haunted, closed expressions as they relate stories of guilt, PTSD and persecution.

“It’s like borders don’t matter anymore,” says Lisa, who eases her regrets by doing humanitarian work in Afghanistan. She’s talking about national perimeters, but the film cares more about the dehumanizing expanse between the drone operator and an often indistinct target. This is smartly illuminated by a re-enactment of an attack from an actual transcript, the video game similarities chillingly underscored by the callous conversation inside the virtual cockpit.

Equally effective is a moving sequence shot in Kabul, Afghanistan, among the survivors of a 2010 drone attack that killed 23 civilians. But if “National Bird” wants to persuade us that the emotional and collateral damage of this technology is greater than that caused by conventional weapons, it needs to widen its lens. Interviews with military specialists able to elucidate the complex calculus of risk and reward would have been invaluable in balancing the narrative and perhaps clarifying the ethical fuzziness.

Even so, there’s a sense that some unwritten human compact has been broken. As an ominously beautiful drone’s-eye camera glides above peaceful American streets, we’re uncomfortably reminded that an invisible death could one day hover over us all.