Kill Shots: Why cinema has drone warfare in its sights


The Guardian / Henry Barnes

Drones have caught the public imagination like never before. If its news of celebrities being chased by them or in mainstream Hollywood blockbusters (not to mention countless independent films or artworks by the likes of James Bridle, George Barber, or Omar Fast), the image of the drone has overshadowed our cultural imaginary. The opening sequence of the frankly racist and inflammatory Gerard Butler vehicle London Has Fallen, sees a drone strike on a known arms dealer and all round bad guy, the fictional Aamir Barkawi. The strike doesn’t kill Barkawi, who comes back to reap revenge on the hubristic western leaders who sanctioned his death, but does destroy the lives of his daughter and her wedding guests (where the attack occurs). Films like this rarely explore the nuances of drone warfare, choosing to paint a stark picture of the world in black and white. Eye in the Sky, starring Helen Mirren and the late Alan Rickman, however, fills in some of the grey areas – focusing as it does on the ethical and legal dilemmas of a drone strike that may kill an innocent bystander. Instead of revelling in the deaths of innocents, like London Has Fallen, this film plays out the multivalent decisions that constitute the execution of an attack such as this. Andrew Niccol’s Good Kill takes this further and explores the dark side of post-traumatic stress disorder associated with drone warfare. But, these films beg the question, how do we guarantee the accuracy of the information presented to drone operators when many of the images of suspects are substandard or low-res? Eye in the Sky, presents an ideal viewpoint, with clear, accurate and verified information, but many drone operators find it difficult to identify exactly what they’re seeing – a rifle or a shovel, for example. Life and death decisions are made with poor images. These films, and more, open up debate around the morality of pressing that fire button on the joystick with little guarantee that your intended target is in fact guilty. These days, we can watch drone footage through Wikileaks, assessing for ourselves the validity of drone warfare. These images allow us to access the deaths of “insurgents” as entertainment – what academic Roger Stahl calls “Militainment”. Video games, such as Call of Duty, and Hollywood films alike play out, and often resolve, the decisions to kill that we are able to see repeatedly in these online videos. In these times, where we are always asked to side with the hubristic, militant characters in films and video games, who commit more and more drones to action – a parallel with the correlated uptick in drone strikes under the Obama administration – how do we construct our politics? It is true that violence at a distance is being continually enacted around the world on multiple “targets”, despite our understanding that the accuracy of the drone strike is never guaranteed (90% of people killed, were not the target - HYPERLINK "", how then do we ask our politicians to act? What exactly is it that they are doing that keeps the world safe?