“Eye in the Sky,” the latest directorial effort from director/screenwriter/actor Gavin Hood, is an excellent critique of the modern war on terror that presents all the sides of a specific issue—drone strikes—while also making the filmmakers’ opinion on it clear. It skips circular logic and asks its audience their opinion on extrajudicial assassinations by the west on sovereign soil abroad. The masterfully tense script by Guy Hibbert allows members of the cast to air out their argument as to the necessity of remote targeted killing, and everyone has good and bad points. But the movie has its own opinion, and the way it humanizes all sides while still taking a stand is admirable.
The movie begins like a rock being dropped into already unsteady waters, with the plot unfolding through the ripples that come after. British Army Colonel Katherine Powell (Helen Mirren) receives intel that at least two high-value members of Al-Shabaab (al-Qaeda’s affiliate group in the Horn of Africa) are meeting at a safehouse in Nairobi, Kenya. One of the militants is a British citizen whom Powell has been tracking for six years. With the help of surveillance from a predator drone being operated from Nevada by a USAF pilot (Aaron Paul) and a local agent (Barkhad Abdi), Powell is able to confirm the targets, who are in a heavily guarded house.
Considering the situation, Powell requests permission to fire a hellfire missile into the house, which Lieutenant General Frank Benson (Alan Rickman) gets from British politicians. Then, a little girl walks into the firing line to sell bread to locals. USAF refuses to fire, and the politicians refuse to allow a strike without a safety guarantee for the girl. Meanwhile, a spy camera shows the terror subjects priming suicide vests and machine guns, and the pressure is on to make a decision.
To make an entire film about a single drone strike may seem narrow in scope, but the script uses that moment of indecision to explore the many layers of drone warfare. Every character is fleshed out, even if their name is a title or position, all of them disagree with each other and nobody wants to be the one to pull the trigger. Every scene of bureaucratic nonsense is then juxtaposed against Paul’s character struggling with the decision to fire, or the local Kenyans just trying to live their lives while under occupation by a militant group.
The great world building creates an opaque atmosphere of dread, fear and complete frustration. Because all of the characters are so well developed and the direction is so tight, it is never boring or unfocused. Like a great journalism story, it takes drone warfare from the top down and is always angering when someone pushes the responsibility of saving or taking a life onto someone else, and horrific when the layers of pressure and bullying are shown. There is also very little violence in the film, but when a trigger is pulled, it is so loud and packed with so much emotional buildup that it is one of the film’s most tragic moments.
“Eye in the Sky” is hard to review without giving important plot elements away, but I can say that it is an important film that ought to be seen. It actively confronts its audience with the human cost of the war on terror and lays a great bait-and-switch in the first act. After the suicide vests are shown, Mirren’s character poses a familiar question: Is it better to spare one life for sure while possibly risking hundreds more? The film could have easily continued on this known path (see “A Most Wanted Man,” “Captain America: The Winter Soldier” and any film that features an overbearing government force), but instead it asks: How did we get to the point where flying death robots blowing people up thousands of miles away in poorer countries is justified? And now that we are here, when do we stop?