Survivors of an American drone strike as seen in 'National Bird'
Survivors of an American drone strike as seen in National Bird

Last week’s feature The Love Witch was the sort of fluffy distraction we could use right now, but alas – all I can offer you this week is an ice cold cinematic shower entitled National Bird (opening at San Francisco’s Roxie Theatre on Friday, Nov. 18th; no East Bay playdates are currently scheduled). A timely and depressing reminder of the powers soon to be vested in the man some call Cheeto Jesus and others call names that aren’t quite so nice, it’s one of the best documentaries of 2016.

Director Sonia Kennebeck’s film takes a close look at three former drone warfare soldiers, each of whom provides a unique and valuable perspective on their participation in this distinctly 21st century brand of warfare. They possess knowledge few others possess and believe the American people should be made aware of the realities of long distance killing.

The Obama administration has famously prosecuted more whistleblowers than all previous administrations combined, and with a paranoid, secretive, and unpredictable new President entering office in January such prosecutions seem likely to increase further. That’s not good news for America, and especially not good news for the whistleblowers we meet in National Bird.

Heather Linebaugh is a former drone imagery analyst who wrote an article on drone warfare for the Guardian; she was one of the first veterans to openly criticize the program. Now a yoga therapist, Linebaugh is as much concerned with the PTSD she and fellow drone vets suffer from as she is with the killing in which she was involved (though she’s unhappy about that, too).

While she doesn’t know how many people she helped kill (and wasn’t the one launching the missiles that killed them), Linebaugh did help determine who would or wouldn’t die on any given day. Her emotions still raw, she continues to struggle with depression and suicidal thoughts as she tries to assuage her conscience and make peace with herself.

Daniel (whose last name isn’t revealed) was a signals intelligence analyst who joined the Air Force out of sheer economic desperation. Now deeply involved in anti-war activities and the most overtly politicized of the film’s subjects, Daniel was subjected to an FBI raid during the production of National Bird and seems likely to become the 13th person prosecuted under the Espionage Act of 1917.

A former technical sergeant in drone surveillance systems, Lisa Ling (not the CNN journalist!) joined the military post-9/11 to be on what she thought was the right side of history. Now disabused of that notion, Ling received a congratulatory certificate from the Air Force noting she identified 121,000 ‘insurgent targets’ in two years. She now tries to make amends by visiting Afghanistan and offering assistance to survivors of drone attacks.

The most remarkable aspect of National Bird comes during its final half hour, when Kennebeck matches video footage of a drone attack with operator transcripts and interviews with survivors of that same attack. It’s a visceral gut punch and another reminder – if another were needed – that the banality of evil recognizes no national borders.

Berkeleyside’s film writer John Seal writes a column in The Phantom of the Movies’ Videoscope, an old-fashioned paper magazine, published quarterly. Read more from Big Screen Berkeley on Berkeleyside.

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Freelancer John Seal is Berkeleyside’s film critic. A movie connoisseur with a penchant for natty hats who lives in Oakland, John writes a weekly film recommendation column at Box...