Two movie reviews in a row – but quite different – one arguably the latest incarnation of my generation’s best known comic book icons, and the other a serious intellectual debate on the moral dimension of modern warfare.
This is a really good movie: one where you can’t leave the cinema without internally debating the pros and cons of a military operation, where you know the consequences are real for those who take part in this very new ‘theatre of war’ involving drone strikes, electronic intelligence surveillance and high tech Western military powers versus third world terrorist enclaves. This is one of those movies where you ask yourself: What would I do? Only many times over.
You insert yourself in so many points of view; a credit to the filmmakers and the actors who create them for you. Only 2 of the actors are known to me: Helen Mirren and Alan Rickman; but they all acquit themselves well, with events taking place simultaneously in 3 geographically separate parts of the world. Such is the nature of modern warfare and communications availability that one can imagine the co-operation of 3 different countries’ governments and military personnel performing one tactically precise operation.
A British production, Colin Firth is one of the producers, which is how it came to Helen Mirren (according to an interview with her) and you wonder why he’s not in it. One can imagine him playing any one of the British roles, such is his versatility. Apparently, the Mirren character was written for a man, so it’s a master stroke giving it to her. Sadly, it’s Alan Rickman’s last film, so it seems fitting to me that he has arguably the best line in the movie: “Never tell a soldier that he doesn’t know the cost of war.” Seeing ‘In Loving Memory of Alan Rickman’ in the credits was as emotional for me as any moment in the movie itself. And the movie certainly has its moments.
I’m not giving anything away by telling you the premise: a drone strike on a house in Nairobi is compromised by the presence of a young innocent girl (just watch the trailer). And it was the trailer that compelled me to go and see this film. In some respects this is a perfectly realistic and believable recasting of Mills’ famous trolley thought experiment: would you sacrifice the life of 1 innocent man to save the lives of 4 others? In this case, do you sacrifice the life of 1 innocent girl to save the potential 80+ lives from a suicide bomber? Really, that’s it in a nutshell. You empathise with everyone in the so-called chain of command, but, in particular, with the young drone pilots, who must perform the actual kill, one of whom is a woman on her very first operation.
Like the military personnel (played by Rickman and Mirren) you get frustrated by the Public Service mentality of avoiding a decision for fear of yet-to-be realised consequences. But what struck me was that the entire decision-making process was driven purely by legal and political considerations, not moral ones. I’ve never been in a war so I really can’t judge. The truth is that in a war, one’s moral compass is changed, not least because you are trained to kill; something you’ve been taught never to do for your entire life. The other truth is that the more one side escalates atrocities so does the opposing side. Concepts of right and wrong that seem so solid and dependable in civilian life can suddenly become slippery and even obsolete. I’ve never been there but I can imagine.
A few years back I wrote a post on drone warfare after reading an article that cited David Kilcullen (in the Weekend Australian) who opposed it, arguing that it would recruit terrorists. One of the many arguments that takes place in the movie is about winning the propaganda war. At the time, watching the scene, I thought: who cares? But at the end of the movie, I realised that collateral damage is always a propaganda win for the opponent. This is the biggest risk of drone warfare. There is another side to this as well. Someone once pointed out (no, I don’t remember who) that when one side of a conflict is technically superior to the other, the other side invariably uses tactics that are considered unethical by the superior side, but the inferior side know that such tactics are their only advantage. This is the case in the so-called ‘War on Terror’, where the technological might of Western military power is thwarted by suicide bomber attacks in public places.
In movies, it’s not difficult to create a character whom the audience roots for, and in this case, it’s the young girl. Alongside that is the imperative to stop terrorist attacks by ideologues whose stated aim is to eradicate Western political and educational norms in whichever way they can. The film makes it clear that the young girl represents the future that these ideologues oppose.