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Eye in the Sky

As a child in Africa, filmmaker Gavin Hood grew up with a uniquely intimate perspective on war. While promoting his adaptation of Ender’s Game, Hood often talked about the real-life child soldiers he had seen recruited and sent off to the battlefield. Hood himself had been drafted into military service at the age of 17.

So here’s Eye in the Sky, which has been billed as Hood’s examination of drone warfare. In truth, the filmmakers go into great detail about many facets of 21st century warfare, such as Islamic terrorism, the diplomatic intricacies of international joint missions, and the bureaucracy of authorizing acts of war. Yet the film also examines the universal and timeless issues of when it’s necessary and justifiable to take a life for the greater good.

Oh, and Hood shot this film in his native South Africa, did I mention that part?

Our stage is set all over the world, but the plot revolves around Nairobi, Kenya. We open shortly after a Somali terrorist network has killed a British infiltrator and claimed responsibility for a mall bombing. Now intelligence has located three internationally wanted terrorists within this network — two British converts and one expatriate from the States — and learned that they’ll all be meeting under the same roof.

The local Kenyan military has been tasked with moving in and arresting our three wanted terrorists as soon as their colleagues in London and the U.S. have made a positive ID. British Colonel Katherine Powell (Helen Mirren) has been assigned to take point on the mission, supervised by General Frank Benson (Alan Rickman, RIP) and various officials within the British government. They’re working in collaboration with the USAF, who’ve sent a drone to take aerial footage of the mission as it unfolds and relay that footage to London in real time. The drone is being piloted from just outside Las Vegas by Lt. Steve Watts (Aaron Paul), alongside newbie Carrie Gershon (Phoebe Fox). The Kenyan forces have also been given a couple of smaller drones (we’ll get back to those), which are better suited for getting close-up shots of our Islamic terrorists and their unfolding actions. The drones are piloted by a spy on the ground with the Kenyan forces, played by Barkhad Abdi, and god damn is it good to see him on the screen again.

(Side note: Hood also gave himself a prominent supporting role, playing the superior officer to the USAF officers played by Paul and Fox.)

At first, the mission is simply to capture and not to kill. But then our terrorists move to a heavily fortified location where Kenyan forces can’t move in, but a Hellfire missile can. AND THEN we find out that there’s an explosive vest in the house and a suicide bomber is being prepped to make a whole lot of people blow up. AND THEN there’s a little civilian girl who parks herself in the immediate area and risks getting blown up in the collateral damage.

The movie opens with a quotation from Aeschylus: “In war, truth is the first casualty.” A better fit would have been a more modern saying: “No battle plan ever survives contact with the enemy.”

With each unforeseen complication, all the officers and politicians involved must revise the rules of engagement, deciding how far they could and should go. Can the military execute one of their countrymen without trial? Is it right for the British to authorize the murder of a terrorist with an American passport? At what point is it safe to say that all reasonable alternatives have been exhausted?

Then there’s the matter of collateral damage. It’s hard enough to predict the collateral damage when it’s just the one missile going boom. Factor in how the explosion could be contained (like a wall surrounding the target) or amplified (like a goddamn suicide vest) and the best anyone can do is guess. The question of surrounding fatalities comes down to a rough percentage. So if there’s a 50-50 chance that a nearby civilian could be seriously hurt, is that enough to drop the bomb?

And of course there’s always the question of whether one innocent civilian death is worth stopping those who would kill dozens, and then go on to kill hundreds more. But then, why worry about people who might hypothetically die in the future when even one life is in certain danger then and there? Would you rather go on TV and explain to the international media why one innocent girl is no longer alive, or condemn a terrorist group for a catastrophic bombing and explain why it wasn’t prevented?

These are all crucial decisions, based heavily on hypotheticals that no one could possibly know. And what really sucks is that if anything goes wrong, everyone involved will have to deal with the blood on their hands. Quite understandably, nobody wants to take a responsibility of this magnitude. Nobody wants to live with that level of grief. So the military brass and the politicians consult their superiors, their laws and rules, their charts and estimations, searching desperately for someone or something to take culpability and say that everyone else is in the clear.

All of this takes minutes when every second counts. Politicians are dithering and a bomb could be on its way at any moment.

It’s interesting to note that the Americans are shown to have a much more straightforward attitude toward this whole thing. They reason that any citizen who’s pledged themselves to an Islamic terrorist sect has willingly betrayed their country and can no longer claim the protections due to them as Americans. They also talk about some kind of “points system” to calculate when collateral damage and civilian deaths are justifiable in the neutralization of a greater threat. Is this logic perfect? Not even close. And the film is very clear in stating that. Of course the characters are hesitant to reduce the life of a human being down to a number — what halfway decent person wouldn’t? That said, at least it’s a system. It’s a clear set of rules and guidelines that someone can point to when somebody asks whether and why the missile should be launched. And again, it saves precious time when lives are at stake and every second counts.

But then (and to be clear, the film never explicitly raises this point), the very fact that these discussions are happening is important. The value of civilian life and the effort to minimize casualties are what separate us from the bloody radicals we’re fighting against. But on the other hand, these Islamic terrorists are actually on the ground putting their lives on the line, while we have the luxury of conducting a war from the other side of the earth, safe from harm behind computer screens. It’s therefore tempting to think that we’re the greater cowards.

But then, just because decisions are being made from so far away, that doesn’t make the decisions any less difficult or important. And those involved still have to live with whatever happens, for better or for worse. Compare that to the suicide bombers — being safely dead, they don’t have to worry the least bit about any guilt or blowback from the lives they take.

And you know what the kicker is in all of this? So many of these debates revolve around the life of a young girl that no one in London or America will ever meet. There are so many people all over the world who are trying to save her life, either by somehow taking out the terrorists in a way that doesn’t hurt her or by calling off the strike entirely. Yet even if she survives, it’s highly doubtful that any of these soldiers or politicians will ever know her name, her face, or even the first thing about her. But we do.

We come to spend a lot of time with young Alia (debut actress Aisha Takow). We learn that she’s a perfectly nice girl who likes to play and read and learn math, in a place and time when she and her parents could be killed for any of those things. This girl has nothing to do with any kind of Islamic extremism, and it’s easy to imagine a future in which she transcends her beginnings and serves as an inspiration for others. That said, the film is smart enough not to overplay her as a saint. Alia is nothing more than a harmless girl in a harmful place, and that’s enough to engender sympathy. Throw in a perfectly charming performance from Takow, and we have every reason to invest in whether or not she makes it out alive.

The movie does a stellar job of portraying every character as a fleshed-out person. There are times when some characters come within a hair’s breadth of two-dimensional, but it bears remembering that this is a highly nuanced situation that eventually boils down to the binary question of whether or not to fire the missile. It’s a highly charged issue and the characters push each other to debate about it until they’re red in the face, so of course some of them may come off as shrill and repetitive at times. Yet every single argument is sound, and it’s always clear where the characters are coming from.

But what’s really telling is what happens off the record. Minor changes in expression that might as well scream out “God, I hope I’m doing the right thing!” Alan Rickman’s monologue about the cost of war (Sweet Jesus, it sucks that we lost Rickman so soon). The scenes of the various characters going home and struggling to put the events of the day behind them. That isn’t even getting started on the colonel’s scenes at home with her husband and her dog, our two drone pilots trading backstory as they get to know each other, the general’s ongoing struggle to find the right doll for his daughter, the foreign minister (Iain Glenn) with a sudden case of food poisoning… the list goes on.

There are so many ways in which the film humanizes its characters, and it pays off in all manner of ways. First and foremost, it hammers home the point that these are merely flawed human beings. They may be entrusted with life-or-death decisions that affect the world in huge ways, but they’re not gods and they’re not infallible. They’re people doing the best they can with what they have, just like us. And even if these decisions affect them on a deeply personal level, maybe that’s better than the alternative.

The other big way that this helps is with regards to suspension of disbelief. The moment I saw people remote-controlling drones small enough to look like hummingbirds and beetles, my bullshit alarm immediately started going off. I started thinking about the intricacies and sizes and weights involved. I couldn’t help but wonder at the mechanics, the power sources, the wireless transmission technology, the camera, the visual quality of the footage… from every angle, I found it borderline impossible to believe that anything like this could be real. And the mediocre CGI certainly didn’t help.

Yet I still played along. Partly because even if this isn’t where we are now, it’s definitely where we’re headed. Plus, these improbable little machines heavily contribute to the plot, as they contribute footage that ratchets up the tension in such a way that the drones became indispensable. But most importantly, everything else in this movie rang true. Because the characters all felt so real, the rest of the technology seemed so authentic, the story was so compelling, and the movie asked so many bold and relevant questions with such uncompromising honesty, I was far more willing to cut the film some slack and allow that maybe this tech was somehow real.

Eye in the Sky is a phenomenal movie. The cast is superb, the writing is wonderful, and the direction is excellent. It’s astounding how much action, suspense, character development, and incisive ethical debate could be packed into 100 minutes’ runtime. What’s even more impressive is that all these different pieces are put together in such a way that the whole film is coherent and fast-paced from start to finish.

It’s a smart, bold and highly relevant film, exciting and intellectual in equal measure. Very highly recommended.

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