Overview: A chilling, disturbing look into the realities of America’s secret drone war in the Middle East that examines the lives of three whistleblowers. FilmRise; 2016; Not Rated; 92 minutes.
The Perfect Wrong Time: Sonia Kennebeck’s National Bird is one of those films that makes me wish we critics could get combat pay. From a purely emotional level, it’s one of the most devastating, heartbreaking films of 2016, easily ranking up there with Ken Loach’s I, Daniel Blake, Kenneth Lonergan’s Manchester by the Sea, and Ava DuVernay’s 13th. It first showed here in America at the Tribeca Film Festival. But because Tribeca loves to torment critics by giving us a grand total of 2 weeks to cover around 200 films, National Bird was one of the docs that fell by my wayside. I don’t know if that was a blessing or a curse; it lands with an even more terrible power in this era of President-Elect Trump. The film deals with America’s highly controversial drone war in the Middle East, one of the few elements of Barack Obama’s presidency which even many devout liberals regard with horror. In charting the surrounding web of bureaucratic incompetence, military pig-headedness, and government obstructionism, Kennebeck reveals a side of America that seems like a conspiracy theorist’s nightmare come true. And remember, this all happened on the watch of a president America was generally fond of, all things considered. And now all these murky apparatuses are falling into the hands of a man who wants to secure top-secret government clearance for his children, the same children who control his financial empire? Excuse me if this review feels choppy; it’s hard to type when you’re hyper-ventilating.
Enter the Whistleblowers: National Bird centers on three whistleblowers, each trying to pick up the tatters of their lives after leaving the service. Daniel, a private contractor and former signals intelligence analyst, recounts how he didn’t like the Armed Forces but joined because he was homeless and desperate. Quickly assigned to a top-secret NSA post at Fort Meade (for which he still technically has top-secret clearance), he later quit and went public with some of the drone program’s evils. As this film was being shot, the full weight of the government fell upon him in retaliation; he was made the subject of an FBI investigation that ransacked his apartment and currently faces federal treason charges, the thirteenth individual to face said charges since they were passed into law in the early 1900s. There’s Heather Linebaugh (Kennebeck only reveals the first names of the three whistleblowers, but in an apparent oversight a screenshot of a news article shows her full name), one of the first people to receive PTSD benefits from working in the drone program. She recounts in chilling detail how, as a former drone imagery analyst, she would become emotionally attached to supposed Afghan civilians after watching them for days. As if watching them get bombed wasn’t enough, it was also her job to watch the victims bleed out, die, and have their families come collect their blasted bodies in order to confirm mission success. The last whistleblower, Lisa, is used primarily by Kennebeck to introduce one of the most heinous war crimes committed by the drone program, the February 2010 bombing of a funeral caravan wherein 23 innocent men, women, and children were killed. Haunted by her work that helped identify an officially estimated 121,000 “insurgent targets” over a two-year period, Lisa travels to Afghanistan to meet with the survivors of the attack. Here Kennebeck recreates the massacre, using declassified footage and voice actors to reconstruct the original radio traffic transcript of the drone crew. Incredibly, they scoff at intelligence reports that the targeted convoy is full of women and children, calling them “full of shit” while excitedly speculating on the upcoming kill. When more intelligence comes in that the children in the convoy may be as young as 12, they practically laugh it off, saying that kids that age are old enough to hold a gun, old enough to be dangerous. When Heather is given the transcript, she confirms that this kind of behavior was commonplace among drone crews—confirmed kills look great on resumes, so they don’t particularly care who their targets are.
Overall: The subtext (and occasional context) for National Bird is that in this information age, it’s only a matter of time until unmanned government drones become a reality here in America. Though they can be used for great good like locating survivors in natural disasters, they inevitably create a distancing, depersonalizing effect among those who crew and pilot them. How can drone crews literally laugh about slaughtering dozens? Because when you’re sitting in a bunker on the other side of the world, the targets stop being people. National Bird realizes this. I hope our soon-to-be-installed elected officials will, too. But my hopes aren’t up.
Featured Image: FilmRise