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National Bird follows the dramatic journey of three whistleblowers who are determined to break the silence around one of the most controversial current affairs issues of our time: the secret U.S. drone war. At the center of the film are three U.S. military veterans. Plagued by guilt over participating in the killing of faceless people in foreign countries, they decide to speak out publicly, despite the possible consequences. Their stories take dramatic turns, leading one of the protagonists to Afghanistan where she learns about a horrendous incident. But her journey also gives hope for peace and redemption. National Bird gives rare insight into the U.S. drone program through the eyes of veterans and survivors, connecting their stories as never seen before in a documentary. Its images haunt the audience and bring a faraway issue close to home.
National Bird profiles three young Americans who have spoken out publicly about the US use of drones to conduct reconnaissance and assassinations in Afghanistan, and follows one woman to Afghanistan to meet with the survivors of drone attacks. The film details the PTSD suffered by the three subjects, the fear of indictment for espionage as a result of speaking out, and the disconnect between the reality of the drone program and the video game face put on it by US Air Force recruitment material.
I saw the movie in San Francisco on the second night of its national opening. There were perhaps twenty people in a small theater, and I think most of us were old enough to be parents of two of the three drone program participants in the film as well as of its two producers. I'd gone to see the film thinking its subject was the program by which the US assassinates Iraqi, Afghani, Pakistani and US citizens abroad, using missiles launched from aircraft piloted by youthful operators in the Nevada desert. National Bird instead seems largely about the young US personnel who are rightfully traumatized by the murder of people based on often faulty intelligence as well as the murder of those who happen to be near the target of US assassinations. I thought the trauma suffered by the two young women came across very effectively. The young man, Daniel, seemed pretty matter of fact about his involvement and was being interviewed while he continued to work in an intelligence role for a US military contractor. While Heather and Lisa spoke at length about the emotional toll their actions took on them, Daniel seemed to speak largely to the fear of prosecution for speaking about the drone assassination program and the experience of some thirty men raiding his home with guns drawn. Those of us who are saddened and angered by the killings done in our name or who have had agents of the US state point guns at us will be moved by the PTSD and fear suffered by those who might be our children. Interviews with Heather's mother and grandfather competently support this.
There is a curious parity in National Bird between Heather and Lisa's psychological trauma and the trauma of Afghani drone attack survivors. A woman sits in a family group and tells how her husband was killed trying to save their children, two of whom were killed. Her son, not yet a teenager, sits next to her. He is missing a leg. An Afghani man who had hoped to study medicine tells of being in a drone attack and it is only towards the end of his testimony that we realize he too has had a leg blasted off. It was unclear to me, however, who had been more victimized. There was such a focus on Heather, Lisa, and Daniel's situations that the Afghani portion of the film seemed almost to be saying the Afghanis had suffered as well. Heather and her family speak movingly about her suffering from guilt. Afghani families speak of, and the viewer is shown, the burnt blasted corpses of women and children.
National Bird's protagonists are shown repeatedly speaking of their being described as similar to Edward Snowden in revealing truths about the US intelligence apparatus, yet there is nothing mentioned in the film which has not been copiously documented elsewhere, if one is interested in looking for it. This flirting with danger about revealing secrets, and the fear of being indicted for espionage, was curious. Daniel's eyes light when he mentions some aspect of the drone operation which he says is quite obvious and mundane yet kept top secret and I found myself wondering why the viewer should care. We are being shown a film documenting how the US kills people around the globe who are merely suspected of sympathizing with groups the US declares political enemies, with no semblance of legality, no rules of war, no courts or tribunals, just the hunches of some bureaucrats in the White House based on intelligence vetted at one level by twenty-somethings who seem they would be as at home in the local mall as in a command and control bunker. Is this not enough? Why the inclusion of the frisson around classified material?
National Bird is certainly worth seeing for its depiction of the effects of drone killing involvement on young military personnel. For the drone war viewers will likely be more interested in Jeremy Scahill's The Assassination Complex.
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