Major Tom Egan (Ethan Hawke) is a fighter pilot in the US air force, with years of combat service behind him. All he wants is to get back in the cockpit, but now he spends his days ensconced in a portakabin outside Las Vegas, ‘flying’ UAVs – better known as drones – over Pakistan and Afghanistan. Joining him on this mission is his superior, Lt Colonel Johns (Bruce Greenwood), Airman Vera Suarez (Zoë Kravitz), Ed Christie (Dylan Kenin) and Specialist Zimmer (Jake Abel). Johns and Tom come from a different age, when their dream was to fly and to serve. Now they are surrounded by rookies recruited from shopping malls where they showed their skills on video games and not in the sky.
The initial portakabin scenes are fascinating. We learn a great deal of just how this war on terror is being fought, and get an idea of how this group interacts and how it copes with spending 12-hour shifts blowing targets to smithereens. We see them watching over US soldiers while they sleep and watching as a woman is raped, powerless to help her (“he’s a bad guy; he’s just not our bad guy”). When the squad is contacted by the CIA, Langley wants to change the rules of combat: they are no longer merely interested in eliminating known Taliban members, but are now looking at liquidating possible suspects. And if this involves civilians, then that’s too bad.
As we see the team taking out their targets, we also see their reactions: Johns is initially disgusted with the CIA (though later surprisingly backtracks); Tom is increasingly conflicted; Suarez is the mouthy conscience clearly stating that they are committing war crimes and acts of terrorism; and Zimmer takes the simplistic view of “if we don’t kill them, they’ll come and kill us”. This is a disappointment: Suarez and Zimmer are more like conduits for opposing political statements than characters with a real identity. There is also the cliché of the young and beautiful Suarez being attracted to Tom, a troubled man twice her age, with a family and a drinking problem to boot.
At home, Molly (January Jones), an ex Vegas dancer and now mom, struggles with her husband’s reticence and increasing distance. In one scene she mentions that when Tom is angry, he becomes even quieter, but later we see him rage and hit out. We hear he doesn’t cuss, but then he roars “fuck”. It would have been more interesting to see him implode rather than explode.
And as we head towards the denouement, Niccol rolls out more tired clichés, as Tom pours his vodka down the sink and searches for redemption. Niccol has made a film that should be admired for bringing the minutiae of this dirty war onto the big screen. Unfortunately, it just doesn’t quite hit the target.