The footage is ominous. They come from the sky—unmanned aircraft equipped with deadly robotic weapons. They scan the horizon for their targets. They lock in. And then they deploy, plummeting to earth to kill a bunch of people who may or may not deserve it.
This might sound like WikiLeaks’ latest video—a top-secret recording of a drone strike in Pakistan that wound up “collaterally damaging” dozens of innocent bystanders. But it’s actually a description of the beginning of the new X-Men blockbuster Days of Future Past—a film that (underneath its comic-book action and time-travel shenanigans) questions the use of military robots and highlights the damage they can inflict on civilians.
Or should I say *another* film.
Days of Future Past is not the only recent Hollywood production to express discomfort with President Barack Obama’s drone program. Last month, Marvel Studios released Captain America: The Winter Soldier—and almost immediately the directors, Joe and Anthony Russo, revealed that their movie was all about “civil liberties… drone strikes, the president’s kill list, [and] preemptive technology.” When a RoboCop reboot came out in February, director Jose Padilha described it thusly: “The movie’s about drones.” Back in 2012, the fourth installment in the Bourne franchise, The Bourne Legacy, featured a sequence in which an American UAV (unmanned aerial vehicle) attempted to blow up Jeremy Renner, a CIA superagent hiding out in Alaska. And then there’s Homeland. On Showtime’s hit spy drama, the original sin—the trauma that transformed Marine Sgt. Nicholas Brody (Damian Lewis) into an al Qaeda sleeper agent—was a drone strike that accidentally killed an 8-year-old boy he’d befriended in captivity.
All of which raises an intriguing question: Is the sudden rise of movies (and shows) that criticize drones a mere coincidence? Or is Hollywood—fueled by the revelations of Edward Snowden and Julian Assange and disgusted by years of kill lists and civilian casualties—finally turning against the president?
There’s little doubt that Obama remains a relatively popular figure in Hollywood. Earlier this month Air Force One touched down in Los Angeles for a quick fundraising and hobnobbing trip: a $64,800-per-couple DNC soiree at the Bel Air home of Disney Studios chairman Alan Horn, an “intimate” $32,400-per-ticket roundtable at the Beverly Hilton, and a Shoah Foundation ceremony at which Bruce Springsteen serenaded the audience and Steven Spielberg presented Obama with an award that christened him an “Ambassador for Humanity.” In 2012, George Clooney raised $15 million for the president’s reelection campaign—at a single event.
Yet the movie industry seems to have soured in some ways on a president whose disapproval rating currently averages 51.3 percent—and drone strikes and domestic spying appear to be a big reason why. Last year, former Obama supporter Matt Damon told BET that the president “broke up” with him, adding that “there are a lot of things that I really question—the legality of the drone strikes, the NSA revelations.” “Obama is becoming the next Nixon,” tweeted actor John Cusack. “What is this, North Korea?” asked director Judd Apatow.
Now those sour feelings are showing up on screen. X-Men: Days of Future Past unfolds in two time periods: a dystopian 2023 in which airborne, artificially intelligent military robots known as Sentinels are hunting down and killing mutants, who are seen as a threat to homeland security; and 1973, the year when the Sentinel program was launched by a government contractor named Bolivar Trask—which is also the year Wolverine time-travels back to in order to stop the program before it really gets going. The plot twists and turns, but the movie’s main point—that a nation is laying the groundwork for its own destruction if it targets its own citizens and isn’t careful enough about killing innocents—is just as pertinent right now, in 2014, as it would be in some imaginary postapocalyptic future. There’s a reason, after all, that the filmmakers chose to trace the Sentinels back to 1973, when Richard Nixon was in charge. Only an obviously corrupt president could take America down this path, they seem to be warning Obama. Don’t be that kind of president.
Captain America: The Winter Soldier, RoboCop, The Bourne Legacy, and Homeland all send a similar message. The Winter Soldier centers on a top-secret S.H.I.E.L.D. (read C.I.A.) project called Project Insight that consists of “three state-of-the-art drone-like ‘helicarriers’… whose long-range weaponry can neutralize threats from a safe, airborne remove” and “analyze data from personal and public records to identify potential hostiles before they materialize.” It’s not spoiling anything to say the film isn’t particularly fond of this program. Likewise, RoboCop is a pretty explicit piece of futuristic political satire that begins with American robot policemen and flying drones killing an innocent child during a suicide-bomb scare in some Middle Eastern country, then goes on to explore whether we as a society should fear anything that has a weapon but lacks a conscience. (Short answer: yes.) The Bourne Legacy, meanwhile, shows a drone attacking an American citizen; Homeland shows a drone turning an American citizen into an enemy of the state—and eventually getting his revenge by killing the vice president.
So what does this mean for Obama? When asked by Mother Jones why he and his brother decided to make a comic book movie about drones and domestic spying, Winter Soldier director Joe Russo gave a fairly straightforward answer. “[Marvel] said they wanted to make a political thriller,” he explained. “So we said, ‘If you want to make a political thriller, all the great political thrillers have very current issues in them that reflect the anxiety of the audience.’” This, of course, is true; some Americans are anxious about Obama’s drone program. But it’s also true that a lot more Americans are a lot more anxious about other things. Polls consistently show that a solid majority of voters support drone strikes—as opposed to, say, Obamacare.
The real reason Russo & Co. are making movies about drones, then, isn’t that they’re speaking for the rest of America. It’s that they’re speaking for themselves—the sort of Hollywood liberals inclined to think that Obama is too centrist (or even conservative). As Russo himself put it in the interview, to figure out which issues “reflect[ed] the anxiety of the audience,” he “just looked at the issues that were causing anxiety for us, because we read a lot and are politically inclined.”
So Obama shouldn't be too worried—at least not yet. Hollywood caring about drones is one thing. The question now is whether they can convince the rest of us to care as well.