Most films that aim to be as topical as Eye in the Sky tend to be boring slogs, more concerned with hitting each hot-button issue or pulling the right strings than with telling a compelling story. Eye in the Sky, however, manages to do both. It’s a white-knuckle suspenseful tale of a mission to apprehend potential terrorists in Kenya while also managing to bring depth and subtlety to the debate about drone-based warfare. In many ways the film is a cinematic version of the Trolley Problem, the famous thought experiment that is a favorite in Intro to Psychology classes and occasionally makes appearances onscreen, and where another film about the drone war might come down definitively on one or the other side of the debate, director Gavin Hood has instead crafted a story complex enough to not offer any simple answers yet simple enough to foster a healthy debate. And while Eye in the Sky does an excellent job of showing just how muddy the waters are when it comes to drone strikes, in the end the audience is likely to see in the film a reflection of their own beliefs, whatever they may be, but regardless of your feelings you should come out of the film with something more to think about.
In Nairobi, Kenya a group of terrorists have scheduled a meeting at a safehouse with a group of college-age recruits from the UK and the US, but their plans are not as secret as they might think. An international group plans on disrupting their activities and capturing the recruits in order to return them to their home countries to stand trial. Leading the mission from the UK is Colonel Powell (Helen Mirren), who oversees the various groups collaborating on the plan and calls the shots as to how to proceed. At her disposal is an American drone operated by young Air Force pilots (Aaron Paul and Phoebe Fox) to provide aerial reconnaissance but armed with missiles as a backup plan, along with an operative in Hawaii tasked with facial identification of their targets. On the ground Powell has Kenyan military troops waiting to carry out the actual capture mission as well as a team (including Barkhad Abdi) running surveillance of goings on inside the safehouse. And watching from London is General Benson (Alan Rickman) along with civilian members of the government to provide oversight and advisement.
This relatively straight-forward, carefully planned and agreed upon mission quickly begins to unravel and grow more complicated when the targets unexpectedly relocate to a new building inside a neighborhood controlled by a terrorist militia which eliminates all possibility of a successful ground assault. The capture mission has now become a drone-based kill mission, with the rules changing as the situation rapidly evolves. It’s no longer just a question of following orders but one with massive legal and political ramifications, with Powell and Benson having to negotiate with foreign ministers, Secretaries of State, attorneys general, and advisors around the world, all weighing the potential costs with the benefits of accomplishing their objective. The sense of urgency increases when suicide vests are discovered in the safehouse, implying an imminent attack, but things are further complicated by the presence of a young girl selling bread on the street adjoining the terrorist safehouse.
On the one hand, Eye in the Sky is a tense thriller. You’ve got a race against the clock by the surveillance teams to identify the targets and gather all of the information they need before the situation can change. From that perspective the main thrust of the film is whether Powell and Benson can jump through all of the bureaucratic hoops and check off every box on the list in order to take out the bad guys. And from that angle the film is largely a success, keeping you on the edge of your seat as various obstacles pop up with the terrorists seemingly on the verge of launching a suicide attack with potentially hundreds of lives held in the balance. It’s a pulse pounding story in that respect, but the straightforward thriller side of the film is by far its least interesting aspect.
Far more interesting, however, is how the film sheds some light on drone warfare even in the broadest terms, and the way it doesn’t shy away from the human consequences of this modern war being waged around the globe. Eye in the Skythrows a bone to both sides of the argument, while simultaneously challenging many of the assumptions upon which our political views may be based. In presenting a scenario with both clear cut villains and victims, terrorists who are about to kill potentially hundreds of people and an innocent child to tug at heartstrings, the film cuts through a lot of the ambivalent circumstances that so frequently surround drone strikes. On the one hand is the view that we should do all in our power to stop terrorism, including being willing to sacrifice civilians as collateral damage in the name of preventing further loss of life down the road. To those who subscribe to that viewpoint, like Powel and Benson, the series of checks and balances, the seemingly endless rules and regulations, and the often uninformed oversight are just getting in the way of stopping the bad guys, and anything that speeds up that process is ultimately for the greater good. On the other hand are those who believe that the drone program requires greater transparency and accountability, to whom the loss of innocent life should be avoided at all costs. For those who urge caution, the numerous committees and leaders who have to sign off on a drone strike and the frequent casualty assessments are necessary to ensure that the moral and political consequences are fully considered and debated before any action is taken which could harm those caught in the crossfire, particularly in the interest of reducing the groupthink and the mission blindness that might lead some to overstep their authority and lead to the loss of innocent lives.
Eye in the Sky has characters who support both of these viewpoints, and they all make compelling arguments. If you go in with an open mind, you’re liable to come out with a renewed interest in the debate and a new appreciation for the complexity of the issue, whereas it’s equally easy for the closed-minded to leave the film simply having their existing viewpoint reinforced. But what Eye in the Sky does best is to put a human face on the drone program. In the film the children in the crossfire are not simply casualty numbers, but a girl with a fondness for hula hoops learning mathematics on the sly because those in power would not approve. The drone pilots are not some callous soldiers playing a videogame from a safe location thousands of miles from danger, but instead are those who have to bear the strongest burden if the trigger is pulled and people are killed. The military commanders are not the ultimate heroes making the bold calls, but are sometimes blinded by years of pursuit and willing to skirt the rules and change the scenario in whatever way benefits their objective. And even the politicians and bureaucrats are not simpering cowards standing in the way of progress, but are people tasked with being their country’s conscience, weighing far reaching consequences with a perspective far broader than a single mission. Eye in the Sky is as much about the human complexities involved in drone warfare as it is in the logistical challenges of fighting terrorism from the sky, and it’s the human side of the equation that is far more compelling and worthy of discussion.
Eye in the Sky has its flaws, however, which occasionally distract from the experience. Surveillance teams use miniature drones shaped like hummingbirds and beetles which strain credulity and would feel more at home in a James Bond story. And in other places logical flaws seem crafted solely for plot purposes. It’s hard to believe a beetle-sized drone capable of broadcasting HD video around the world would still require its operator to hide within close proximity in order for the signal to work, except that the plot demands it. Still, these issues are relatively minor and serve mostly to set up a scenario that allows for the ideal discussion of the larger issues by the audience after the film. On the other hand, some will be bothered with the simplicity of this particular mission. The reality of drone warfare is that every mission takes place somewhat in the dark, and is filled with hypotheticals. In the real world there’s never live video of terrorists putting on their suicide vests and the opportunity to stop such a clear attack. The reality consists far more of shades of grey rather than the film’s clear black and white balancing act of weighing the threat of terrorism against the life of an innocent child.
While the performances are uniformly excellent, particularly from Mirren and Paul, I’d be remiss if I didn’t take a moment to call attention to Alan Rickman in his final live action performance. Rickman’s General is the go-between in the film, trying to negotiate with the civilian politicians and leaders so that Mirren’s Colonel can do her job. As such he variously has to stroke egos, calm nerves, and even outright bully the doubtful in order to ensure that the mission goes forward, all with the clock ticking. It’s a subtle performance that shows Rickman’s range and the talents of the actor we so recently lost, and it’s more than a little heartbreaking to watch. Rickman also gets the film’s most memorable line at the end, bringing humanity and pain to a character who might otherwise have been a stereotype.
Director Gavin Hood and writer Guy Hibbert have crafted an engaging film out of a story that could easily have been a mess. On the one hand they could have made an American Sniper-style film that serves only to acknowledge the service and sacrifice of men and women in uniform without acknowledging the inherent ethical issues involved in any form of war. They could have made a Michael Bay-esque action thriller with slow-motion explosions and last minute saves, while the flag waves brightly in the background and triumphant music plays. Or they could have easily have gotten bogged down in the mess of the reality of drone warfare, losing any semblance of storytelling in an attempt to show the whole truth of the situation. What they’ve done instead is find the middle ground in order to attack the larger issues at play. They seem to be asking, “Why debate the minutiae of policies and procedures when the real question we need to be discussing is when and if it’s acceptable to trade the lives of innocents in the name of protecting society?” In essence, it’s the Trolley Problem, a problem without a right or wrong answer but one which shines a light on the thoughts and feelings behind our opinions and which serves as a starting point for more complex debates. Few films manage to raise these issues in a way that doesn’t feel forced and which acknowledges the wide range of emotions and viewpoints involved in the debate. And if Eye in the Sky can do that while still serving up an exciting thriller of a film, so much the better.