Eye in the Sky is a gripping, superbly performed thriller that presents modern warfare as ethically and morally complex, rather than a lethal computer game played by detached military personnel.
The title of this pulsating, morally confronting thriller refers to a drone armed with Hellfire guided missiles, hovering unseen high above a house in Kenya under UK/US military surveillance. Suspicions that there are key terrorists within are confirmed when a man-on-the-ground (Barkhad Abdi), posing as a merchant and operating from a laptop under the noses of watchful armed men, manoeuvres a tiny insect-like drone inside. The terrorists are seen to be preparing two suicide bombers for an imminent mission, and the military objective changes from capture to kill. A US pilot based in Nevada (Aaron Paul) is ordered to launch a drone strike. As he prepares to release the missile, a local teenage girl selling bread sets up her table within the kill zone…
This set-up is fraught with tension from every angle, but the anxiety levels of the military and political decision-makers conferring on both sides of the Atlantic are off the charts. Do they spare the life of the girl and abort the strike, or sacrifice her to prevent the greater “collateral damage” that will surely ensue if the suicide bombing proceeds? This is the moral dilemma at the heart of the film, and one that cannot be resolved without loss of innocent life.
For intelligence officer Colonel Powell (a steely, ruthlessly pragmatic Helen Mirren), there is an imperative to proceed with the strike, and she is prepared to bend the rules of engagement to that end. Her position is both personal and professional – she has been tracking these terrorists for 6 years.
Her Lieutenant General, Frank Benson (played by the now deceased Alan Rickman, in superb form in his last movie appearance), stationed in a war office in London with senior Government ministers, shares her view, as do his American counterparts, but there is dissent around the table. The politicians struggle with the pragmatic approach of the military, but must grapple with the political implications of refusing to authorise a strike that would have prevented a suicide bombing.
With the clock ticking down as the terrorists ready the bombers for their bloody mission and prepare to leave the house, the pressure on the “kill chain” of command in the UK and US builds to fever pitch. It’s edge-of-the-seat stuff, and aside from the moral and ethical minefield in which we find ourselves (along with the characters) the narrative has been cleverly emotionally booby-trapped. You see, we have been earlier introduced to the innocent young girl in the kill zone. She is presented as a sweet teenager who derives simple delight from playing with a hula hoop in the backyard of her family compound. Further, her family are moderate Muslims doing their best to make a living baking bread, while staying under the radar in a heavily policed community of fundamentalists. They’re clearly branded as Good Guys.
A bit heavy-handed perhaps, but the strategy is effective in raising the emotional stakes. The characters overseeing the mission see more or less what we see. We care about the girl, and so do they. Thus, the common notion that engaging in warfare through a distant “eye in the sky” takes emotion and humanity out of the equation and is akin to a computer game, is undermined.
Lieutenant General Benson delivers the most telling line of the movie when in its concluding stages he responds to a female politician who accuses him of being distanced from the human toll of his military decisions: “Never tell a soldier he doesn’t know the cost of war.” It’s a resoundingly powerful statement delivered with great dramatic timing and gravitas by Rickman.
Eye in the Sky is a gripping, well-crafted and terrifically performed thriller, but it is more. In exposing us to the moral and ethical complexities of modern warfare (actually, any warfare), it highlights the uncomfortable truth that in such contexts loss of innocent lives is inevitable and unavoidable, and that responsibility may be assigned to the decision makers, but not necessarily blame.
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