On the surface, “National Bird” is an effective and eye-opening documentary about the various political and moral harms of the U.S. drone program. Yet the real reason to see it lies in the way it insightfully and empathetically laments the fact that dehumanizing one’s “enemy” to the point of failing to even register them as human beings will in turn dehumanize the attacker. Once we go down the path of perceiving thousands of potentially innocent targets, children among them, as nothing but inconsequential blips on a screen, we’re already lost as a species. Winning a war becomes an arbitrary achievement, no more consequential than a participation trophy from a little-league baseball game.
Such a lack of respect for human life took place in 2010, when wrong intelligence about a target led to the deaths of a number of innocent families in Afghanistan. The most chilling and downright stomach-churning moment in “National Bird” comes when director Sonia Kennebeck combines the drone footage of the attack with an audio recreation of the recently released transcript from the operation, with soldiers flippantly discussing whether or not they should press fire before confirmation of the intelligence they’re working with comes through.
The nonchalant language has the gravitas of a casual water-cooler conversation at a Best Buy employee break room, complete with “dude” and “brah.” Heather, a former drone-imagery analyst who suffers from severe PTSD after witnessing so much senseless violence, reads the transcript with tears flowing down her face. She always knew that a lot of the intelligence she relayed to those in charge fell on deaf ears; now she has the terrifying proof.
During the 2010 incident, she tried to warn her superiors that the targeted trucks were full of women and children, but the bombing was executed as planned. She tells the documentary crew that her superiors and pilots don’t usually care about such intelligence anyway, since every new kill looks good on their resume. Kennebeck effectively cuts to devastating cell-phone video of mothers and fathers screaming and sobbing as they try to identify their children from a bag full of random body parts right after the drone strikes, showing us the true damage inflicted on real people who merely looked like indiscriminate Atari 2600 graphics a minute ago.
Heather has trouble getting disability benefits to treat her PTSD, and her story puts a real face on the fictionalized one we saw in“Good Kill,” the underrated Andrew Niccol drama about a drone pilot who questions the ethics of his job while also dealing with emotional and mental fallout from his work. Dealing with being responsible for so many horrible deaths is a heavy burden to bear, no matter if the killing is done on the battlefield or at the computer. Kennebeck lets Heather’s pain speak for itself, without adding any melodramatic touches.
Meanwhile, Daniel, a former signal intelligence analyst and an outspoken anti-drone activist, might be in serious trouble as he shares some highly damning information about the drone program with the public. He’s charged with espionage, and ends up hiring famous whistleblower attorney Jesselyn Radack, who represented Edward Snowden. The brief sections about Daniel provide the doc with a slight real-life political thriller angle, one with a rather ominous conclusion. That works fine, but the true strength of the film lies with the way it deftly examines the serious moral and ethical issues this program creates.
Lisa, a former technical sergeant for the drone program, knows that the further back the battle lines are drawn, the less we consider the other side to be comprised of human beings. She’s also haunted by her actions while she was in the program, which fills her with a desperate need to find a human connection with people she once considered to be enemies. So she makes her way to Afghanistan and meets the remaining family members from the aforementioned attack in 2010. The lament of a mother who tells the cameras that she deeply loved the daughter who was killed during the attack breaks Lisa’s heart, but even during such darkness, a common ground through confession and forgiveness might be within reach.
“National Bird” was co-executive produced by Errol Morris and Wim Wenders, which makes sense, since Kennebeck uses a lot of Morris’ trademark stylistic touches to her advantage. Most of the interviews get really close to the subjects, while keeping the background completely out of focus, letting the audience truly feel the pain of people on both sides of the conflict. There aren’t any Morris-style recreations, apart from the audio performances from the transcript, but Kennebeck frequently cuts to long drone footage of American cities while the interview subjects talk about how easy it is to kill people when all you see is a bunch of random dots. Meanwhile, random American dots are all we see.
Since full-blown authoritarianism recently stuck its disgusting head into our country, we can expect the drone program to further intensify the random killings, which makes “National Bird” that much more of an important watch. But this isn’t merely “eating your cinematic vegetables,” as Kennebeck manages to present a well-paced and structured documentary that’s also culturally significant. [B+]