FILM REVIEW: NATIONAL BIRD (2016) DIR. SONIA KENNEBECK
Nature lovers be warned. Don’t expect any birds in this documentary about America’s
drone program. This is a chilling, yet even-handed look at the reality of those engaged in this top secret type of warfare. Though they are never engaged in combat physically they are definitely combatants. They gather and analyze intelligence and track targets to be killed in the Middle East from computer screens at Air Force locations in the states. The stealthy nature of the drones reflects the dearth of information which the average civilian has about the scale and deadliness of this form of warfare. It feels like a video game on many levels. The case made for this type of warfare is that there are no American boots on the ground and no American casualties.
The efficiency and scale of the technology is so formidable that it can allow the mind to become numb to the reality that the anonymous targets are actually human beings, in many cases innocent people (collateral damage). Told through the eyes of three veterans involved in the drone program, in some cases reluctantly. They discuss the consequences of their actions which were responsible for many hundreds of deaths. The difference between killing people who are physically threatening you and those who pose only an abstract threat involves a different mindset. You do not have the body’s fight/flight mechanisms motivating and justifying your actions. Imagine, if you can, going to work every day in an office-like environment to do your job, which is killing people. If you are in the military, you do not have much choice. It is the military. The point which the film makes is the toll on these people, the stress and anxiety and, in some cases, a form of PTSD which they suffer. That and the moral dilemmas which often accompany war are as real for them as those of troops engaged in actual combat.
One young man, a pacifist, who worked for NSA and became a whistleblower, risked going to jail for treason, has been harassed by the FBI, and has had to keep moving to protect himself from prosecution. One of the women, having seen the news footage of a misguided strike on civilians which killed 23 and maimed many more in Afghanistan, has gone to that village bringing clothes and medicine and spent much time trying to make reparation for the terrible harm inflicted on these innocent victims.
It is a gut wrenching indictment of the ravages of war which go way beyond the battle fields and the physical damage to bodies and souls, communities and livelihoods, and also the moral conscience of a nation and those who participate. I found it a fascinating juxtaposition to Eye in the Sky (dir. Gavin Hood), starring Helen Mirren. That political thriller takes place almost entirely in a single drone facility and focuses on the tactical, political and moral imperatives of the generals and the government who determine what the operatives like those in National Bird must do. It is a fascinating and disturbing topic and one that we should probably be more aware of.