Release Date: April 1st, 2016 (US); April 15th, 2016 (UK)
Genre: Drama; Thriller; War
Starring: Helen Mirren, Aaron Paul, Barkhad Abdi, Alan Rickman
I often find that the most engaging films are those which, in one way or another, encourage viewers to invest more than just the alertness of their eyeballs. Films that oil the brain, that challenge you to weigh up testy themes or unfurl complicated arguments both in the cinema and later at home. Some of the best movies reflect the prevailing zeitgeist (Boyhood), while others re-evaluate histories (Bridge of Spies). There are also those which, having aged over time, can be examined under the guise of new perspectives (2001: A Space Odyssey). Eye in the Sky is one of the former, its content exclusively in tune with the woes of modern drone warfare and, unsurprisingly, it’s a heart-thumper.
A low key opening sequence outlines the active operation, the personnel involved, and the everyday atmosphere at play. There’s Colonel Katherine Powell (Helen Mirren), a senior intelligence official who has tracked down a group of terrorists residing in Nairobi, Kenya. She wishes to eliminate the group, one of whom is a former British national, and has the support of Lieutenant General Frank Benson (Alan Rickman). Evidently, the duo are used to navigating tough situations from afar — they are working from separate UK bases — though the situation Powell and Benson are about to encounter is probably as tough as it gets. That is, juggling the life of young girl selling bread in the vicinity of their prospective drone strike.
Gavin Hood’s film is formatted almost to match that of a 24 episode, which is to say it ticks along more or less in real time as people in suits number-crunch death percentages and debris projections. Foreshadowing is a factor too: Rickman, superbly authoritative yet typically human, drolly sweats over dolls and toys as the Lieutenant General, unaware his job will shortly have him deciding the fate of a child. Screenwriter Guy Hibbert colours his characters with titbits of everyday information in an attempt to humanise them, quite successfully given the amount on-screen. We learn, for instance, that American drone pilot Steve Watts (Aaron Paul) is only monitoring the controls of such a weapon in a bid to counter his college debt.
These people are secure, detached from a teetering war zone in Nairobi, their most immediate danger apparently food poisoning — Iain Glen’s queasy British Foreign Secretary struggles with an upset stomach, a first world problem if there ever was one. You wonder if they actually care about the civilians caught in their crosshairs or whether it is all just a political game of Pass the Buck (there was a laugh of incredulity in my screening following one such buck-passing incident). Some do care, primarily those ordered to get their hands dirty: Watts and new recruit Carrie Gershon (Phoebe Fox) wear the emotional baggage of their piloting well, while Barkhad Abdi’s undercover ground agent evokes conscientiousness despite having to navigate the tumultuous streets.
Others struggle with the dilemma too — as time goes on, it increasingly looks as though the terrorists are about to commandeer an enormous suicide attack, however their assassination in present circumstances would almost certainly kill the aforementioned young girl. We see timid bureaucracy in action; the chain of command gains branches by the second as nobody seems willing to make the final call, apart from Powell. This is militancy versus diplomacy and she is firmly aligned with the former, calculated and desperate, unwavering in her kill-or-be-killed motto. Mirren compels throughout and rules those around her with a cracked iron fist. At times you feel her judgement has been clouded by her innate desire to end what must be a years-long operation.
It’s possible too that she has been desensitised by process: surveillance technologies used by the conglomerate of global forces (borders are irrelevant in this inter-connected world) include spy cameras disguised as airborne birds and bugs (brick walls are irrelevant too). These trinkets embody the disconnect between tangible ground activities and those making the crucial decisions from afar, and such technologies likely lighten the load for senior decision-makers such as Powell. Interactions between UK and US agencies hint at the statistical and mechanical nature of modern warfare, a notion embodied by the varying systems of collateral damage interpretation between the two nations. It’s not a matter of saving every life, but rather reducing the total number of deaths.
Hibbert’s screenplay ties in real-world strands by referencing the ongoing migrant crisis (“Well let’s hope she’s not coming back,” bemoans Powell regarding the homegrown British terrorist) but really Eye in the Sky is all about the immorality of war in 2016. The best result the military’s facial recognition software can hope for is a “highly probable” match, which would be great in a university science lab but not ideal when lives are at stake. Any margin of error is amplified in battle and the debates between officials take on that extra weight, a weight that we also incur as we sympathise with various characters. Megan Gill edits Haris Zambarloukos’ cinematography to full effect, highlighting the stark anomalies in Nairobi: Gill cuts from the young girl setting up her bread stall to the extremists preparing their suicide vests, mere metres separating the two.
The film avoids problematic whirlpools and discriminatory icebergs by riding a wave maturity — it would be very easy to take a side, but as the piece nears conclusion it shines a blatantly more rounded light on a number of brutes earlier seen authoritatively commanding vehicle checkpoints. Unlike London Has Fallen, which clumsily waded its way into the drone debate, Eye in the Sky sets out to discuss and not to distract. Clearly they are different films in a tonal sense, aimed arguably at different audiences, but both speak the same thematic language and only the latter does so with any credibility.
There is one issue that the film only manages to partially iron out. You’ll almost certainly enter this having already formulated an opinion one way or the other, especially given the relevance and significance of drone warfare in today’s political climate. And although it is possible you’ll be made to reconsider that opinion — it helps that Hood’s gripping direction increasingly positions you alongside the toiling decision-makers — chances are the events depicted will not shift anyone’s viewpoint. This isn’t necessarily a reflection on the movie itself, but rather the divisiveness of its real-world content.
People band around the phrase “spoils of war” in relation to any profits gained through military victory. But it is war that spoils, and here we see that spoiling in action: it spoils ethical frameworks established by the civilised strand of humanity; it spoils urban locales that have hosted and continue to host generations of livelihoods; and, crucially, it spoils the daily existence of normal people living their normal lives. Eye in the Sky suggests war spoils some people more than others, and while that mightn’t be a new conclusion, the method of warfare on display is as morally challenging as it gets.