Note: This review contains a heavy amount of spoilers for this film given that it is now on video. What is discussed below is now “After the Show” and is fair game.
Director Gavin Hood/2016
Director Gavin Hood is an unlikely candidate to head a film with the likes of Helen Mirren, Aaron Paul, and Alan Rickman following his disappointing directorial efforts of both Ender’s Game, and X-Men Origins: Wolverine. There, Gavin was handling established properties with legions of fans, cinematic and literary, who didn’t appreciate the final product that was delivered to them. His latest film, Eye in the Sky, arrived this spring with very little fanfare, but it packs an enormous moral punch in a very simple, yet effective plot from writer Guy Hibbert (5 Minutes of Heaven).
Like Good Kill, starring Ethan Hawke, Eye in the Sky deals with the morality of drone-warfare. Where Good Kill dealt with the topic from the vantage point of a drone pilot who is bringing home the effects of war daily to his suburban Las Vegas home, stepping off the battlefield to go back to his family each night, Eye in the Sky takes a more eagle-eyed macro view of the proceedings.
Helen Mirren is Col. Katherine Powell. She has been tasked with heading up an operation in Nairobi, Kenya where a radical Islamic terrorist group is plotting a suicide bombing. The operation is made up of a joint operation between Great Britain, the United States, and Kenyan forces. The Kenyans are trying to stop more bloodshed from striking their population from this fictional Islamic group patterned after ISIS and Al Qaeda.
The U.S. and Great Britain are involved because 3 of the terrorist targets are from these western countries, having radicalized and joined this terrorist group. Aaron Paul is the American drone pilot who, along with his co-pilot, are having to balance their orders to strike their target and deal with the possible collateral damage they would be responsible for. Alan Rickman is the Great Britain General who sits in a room with the British Attorney General and various politicians, waiting for the legal and political “o.k.” before he can authorize Col. Powell to proceed with any drone-strike.
Many politically-themed films tend to hide in ambiguity and the shadows of an issue, but Eye in the Sky seeks to tackle the issues head on, bringing the dark shadows of this moral issue into the light.
The plot is straight-forward and manipulative as the potential collateral damage is one Kenyan girl selling bread to help her family raise money. She is a girl who is the apple of her father’s eye, a Muslim who loathes the radical “fanatics” he lives among. He encourages his daughter to play, sweetly making her a hula hoop, and he helps her to get an education, even hiding her books when people come by the house. Everyone watching the proceedings from the video footage provided by the drone, and various on-the-ground spy cameras from local Kenyan operatives, are touched by the fact that this girl is selling her bread in the blast radius of any potential strike.
The morality play builds as we are asked to weigh out the decision of the shelling of one house to kill 5 terrorists who are actively loading up suicide vests to create potential carnage and destruction of innocents for their cause, and the death of one girl selling bread. How valuable is her life? Is her life worth sacrificing for the greater good of the lives saved by taking out those participating in this terrorist cell group? Who makes these type of decisions? Should it be the military, who have been tasked with keeping us safe? Is it the lawyers who are trying to limit their client’s (mainly their country’s soldiers) legal culpability by not allowing operations until its been proven that every precaution to save lives was taken?
How do we determine “every precaution was taken”? Col. Powell, is asked to get the damage assessment to below 50% so that the lawyers and politicians will say yes, thinking they are giving this girl a 50/50 shot at life after the strike. Again, what is the life of this girl worth? Just 50%? Also, you have the politicians who must weigh out what they can defend in the larger Public Relations war countries face vs. the terrorist group itself. If they let the bombers go and they kill lots of people, public sentiment will go against the terrorist group. But if the public finds out that either Great Britain or the U.S. let one girl selling bread die, then sentiment will go against the countries trying to fight terrorism. What about the notion of a country targeting its own citizens for assassination?
When the decisions are made, and actions taken, we see the fall-out from all sides of the arguments. Many politically-themed films tend to hide in ambiguity and the shadows of an issue, but Eye in the Sky seeks to tackle the issues head on, bringing the dark shadows of this moral issue into the light. Each side of the argument has valid points, and massive failings. Alan Rickman, in his last on-screen moment, tells a politician “Never tell a soldier that they don’t know the costs of war”. The audience is left to weigh things out on their own as credits roll with the beautiful Kenyan girl hula-hooping in her yard from earlier in the film’s timeline.
Eye in the Sky is a good film for Gavin Hood as it allows him to simply tell a story not hampered by legions of fan-boys expectations, but one that simply shows us something we are all culpable in. We elect the politicians that write the laws that are enforced by the lawyers for our soldiers to follow. We elect the people tasked with making the hard decisions of stopping some, knowing there will be losses beyond those individuals they are targeting. We must decide what life is worth. We, become the ‘eye in the sky’ watching the proceedings, and as the credits roll, the decision on how to proceed is ours.