IT’S EASY ENOUGH to assume (as I have) that drone warfare is a kind of indifferent, impersonal intrusion into someone else’s country that often enough results in ISIS-recruiting collateral damage. The intelligent, nuanced, stunningly gripping Eye in the Sky says “hang on, I beg to differ”.
The action, which takes place over the course of a single day, follows the, mainly aerial, pursuit of three high value al-Shabaab targets (two Brits and an American) as they plot a couple of suicide missions.
Col. Katherine Powell (a purposeful, take no prisoners Helen Mirren, in a role originally written for a man) is the intense, driven officer who has been tracking these three for the last six years. Finally, as they all rendezvous in a dilapidated house somewhere in Kenya, via the snooping eyes of menacing, invisible drones (one, a large Hellfire-carrying aircraft and two other smaller ones disguised as a bird and an insect), she has them in her sights. The – approved – joint task force mission is to capture the suspects. But this is no gung-ho right wing Clint Eastwood action movie where American macho wins the day. This is (we assume) the real world of what a joint task force ‘surgical attack’ really looks like.
Powell may be the leader of the task force, but she reports in to- and has her every move puppet-mastered by – a Cobra committee (that’s the UK government’s military/government anti terrorism force). Her London operating base is linked to the (American) drone piloting base in Nevada, an (American) facial recognition unit in Pearl Harbour and the (Kenyan) on the ground operatives in the small, busy village where the high value suspects have been tracked.
Director Gavin Hood and Production Designer, Johnny Breedt’s (Mandela: A Long Walk to Freedom) recreation of these often claustrophobic spaces – Powell’s underground bunker, the windowless cabin of the drone operators, the confining rooms of the terrorist retreat and the dusty, jihadi patrolled streets of the village – are all meticulously recreated. We are there with the protagonists.
Pretty soon, the reality of the mission changes: any attempt to capture these jihadists would lead to massive loss of civilian and military life. Much easier to simply bomb the group by air.
But there will be some collateral damage (between 45-65% within a radius of about 5 meters we’re told)…mainly that of a cute little girl, tasked with selling her mom’s home baked bread (as a nice, glancing aside, we see the dreadful lot of women – girls – in this al-Shabaab controlled world).
Powell’s perspective is a clear, rational, militaristic one: if these Jihadists aren’t killed, the suicide missions they’re presently plotting will result in the lives of dozens. Better to sacrifice the life of the few to save the lives of the many. Her opposite number (Monica Dolan…prim, smug, superior) is a junior minister who has all the liberal moral certitude of the tea sipping, biscuit eating arm chair critic who’d really rather not be associated with (in other words bury her head in the sand from) a targeted kill. If Powell’s perspective is all emotion-free hard-nosed realism, hers is all specious, sanctimonious sentiment.
Between these two opposed camps are the dithering, buck-passing, ass-watching politicians (with a wonderful turn by Jeremy Northam as a sweaty, vacillating, scared minister), their lawyers and their spin doctors whose main concerns are self protection and managing the optics of the occasion. It’s better they note (from a PR perspective) for al Shabaab to kill eighty, a hundred, two hundred persons, than for the West to be seen as causing the collateral damage of one bystander.
This military v moral v political debate is further complicated by the questions of the law. As the movie demonstrates, these deep ethical issues are, in this world, determined (perhaps rightly) by lawyers and a cover your ass mentality that inhibits any rapidity of response. The nail biting tension in the movie lies in the trembling space between pulling the trigger and triggering the permission to do so.
And where in this ‘conversation’ lies the value of human emotion…of intuitive judgment? At the movie’s beating heart are two old fashioned heroes, whose intuitive sensibilities cut through the bullshit to shape the action: Steve Watts (Aaron Paul) is the drone pilot, located in the desert in Nevada who is charged with controlling the drone and effecting the kill. His conscience gets in the way and he is – alone- prepared to stand up to authority to question their indifference to the plight of the innocent bystanders.
The other hero is the on-the-ground operative (Barkhad Abdi from Captain Phillips) who has to literally fight his way past jeep-loads of guards to spy on the targets and to do anything to minimize civilian casualties. His real life attempts to keep himself alive and to save others is nicely contracted with the save your ass mentality of the politicians.
The multiple moral perspectives are all seen through multiple perspectives: literally through shifting viewpoints; we view the action through the eyes of the multiple drones (when one dies it’s as though reality has stopped), through the eyes of various teleconferences (as the on-camera speakers, in particular Col Powell, present themselves, their public faces, to their audiences) and through the eyes of the camera that swoops in, like a drone, on some of the more intimate moments of the protagonists.
Eye in the Sky is a very filmic, tense action movie that’s also like the best of good theatre…in that the quality of the writing (made real by the quality of the acting) is so strong.
Writer Guy Hibbert’s screenplay (he also wrote TV movies Complicit and Omagh) is a very talky debate about the rightness/wrongness of drone warfare. But it’s never dramatized propaganda; never feels like an armchair discussion. Director Hood (Ender’s Game, X-Men Origins: Wolverine, Rendition and who has a minor role in the movie) cleverly steers away from simply making his characters mouthpieces of his rich philosophical debate. He keeps the action fast, pulsing the need for speedy decisions with the agonizing delays of political buck-passing; and he involves us completely with his ensemble of very recognizable (engagingly flawed, cowardly, intelligent, thoughtful) players.
The supporting cast is brilliant: in this, his last movie, Alan Rickman as a Lieutenant General, is the experienced, frustrated, cynical, fearless army man who must molly-coddle, influence and tolerate the likes of his calculating, vacillating, strong looking, but spineless ministers (in particular, Northam), beholden to the almost faceless, characterless legal authorities. There’s a small role for Phoebe Fox (The Woman in Black 2 and other minor roles) as one of the drone pilots who personifies the raw emotional drama (the antithesis of the indifferent drone killer) hidden under all the political pomp and posturing. I’m sure we’ll be seeing much more of her.
Apparently 30% of US military drone operators are treated for post-traumatic stress disorder. After Eye in the Sky, you can understand why.