Don't ask me how this movie slipped through the cracks. I saw it in the theater and it should have been part of my "Now Showing" series.
“Eye in the Sky” is a movie about drone warfare. It examines the moral dilemmas this new type of warfare sometimes precipitates. Once again I had to travel to Austin, Texas to view a new war movie. Apparently, Louisiana is not a hot spot for war movies with limited release. This is the third time a trip to visit my sister has had the benefit of seeing a good war movie in a theater. The other two movies were “The Hurt Locker” and “’71”.
“Eye in the Sky” was directed by Gavin Hood (“Ender’s Game”). He used locations in his home country of South Africa. Screenwriter Guy Hibbert was interested in depicting the involvement of the “kill chain” in the implementation of drone targeting. His script shifts between the various locations of the military personnel and politicians. In the first five minutes of the film, we jump to five different locales. All of the locales are tied in via modern technology so all the participants are watching the event unfold and can have input.
The movie opens with a quote from Aeschylus: “In war, truth is the first casualty.” British Colonel Katherine Powell (Helen Mirren) is heading a mission to capture some high profile terrorist targets in Kenya. The big fish are two British nationals (husband and wife) who have joined the Al Shabaab terrorist organization. Powell is especially interested in the woman, who she has been tracking for six years. The suspects have been located in a safe house in Nairobi and the Kenyan special forces are set to raid it. Powell’s team uses an ornithopter (a radio-controlled cybird with a camera) to get visual identification of the woman, Susan Helen Danford. Unfortunately for Powell, Danford and several other targets leave the house to go to another location in an Al Shabaab-dominated neighborhood. This change of venue is monitored by a Reaper drone crew located at Creech Air Force Base in Nevada. In this case, a insectothopter (a cybug with a camera) is used to infiltrate the house. The beetlecam discovers that the terrorists are gearing up for a suicide-vest bombing. Since the special forces cannot realistically storm the house, the mission now shifts from capture to kill. And politicians get involved.
At this point, the movie becomes a study in drone assassination decision-making. Powell is pushing for an immediate Hellfire missile strike. Her official argument is it will save lives. This view is supported by her commanding officer Lt. Gen. Frank Benson (Alan Rickman) who is at COBRA (the Cabinet Office Briefing Room) at Whitehall in London. In the room with him are several politicians who are mainly interested in covering their asses and passing the buck. At first the hemming and hawing revolves around whether they have the authority and justification to go for a kill shot. Soon a complication arises as a young girl enters the picture, literally. She sets up a bread stand near the building and could possibly be within the kill zone. What is the life of one girl compared to the potential deaths of civilians in a shopping mall if the suicide bombers are allowed to leave?
“Eye in the Sky” is well-acted by a strong cast. Helen Mirren anchors the movie as Powell. She is perfect as the hard as nails techno-assassin. Powell is willing to bend the rules of engagement in order to get her girl. You’ve seen this character before, but never as a female. Speaking of stereotypes, the Powell character is balanced by the female politician in COBRA who represents the other end of the spectrum in potential bread-selling kid casualties. Rickman, in one of his last roles, is his usual dependable self. Surprisingly, his Lt. Gen. Benson is not another Turgidson from “Dr. Strangelove”. Benson is in COBRA to present the military’s point of view. Rickman is wonderful at depicting the focused military man who has to deal with a room full of wimpy pols who are continually passing the buck upward so they can avoid making a tough decision. Buck-passing is one of the themes of the movie and it almost becomes a running joke. (Some people in the theater started chuckling by the fourth passing of the decision up the chain.) This theme has a “Dr. Strangelove” feel to it, but “Eye” is far from a satire. By the way, if buck-passing is a theme, a subtheme is when the buck is passed to Americans the decision is always “take the shot”.
The other key characters are Aaron Paul as the drone pilot and Barkhad Abdi as the undercover agent sent into the neighborhood with his beetle drone. Paul is good as the conflicted pilot. An earlier view of the hula-hooping little girl makes her situation even more personal for him. He represents the “what would you do?” perspective. This perspective is paired with the movie’s debate over whether the kill order is the right decision. This debate takes place in several locales. (The four principal actors did not meet during the shoot.) The movie moves briskly from place to place with the common thread of everyone (including the audience) viewing the proceedings on computer screens. There is a clock-ticking suspense.
“Eye in the Sky” is not based on a true story, but it is meant to be instructive on how drone warfare works. Since drones have been an important aspect of the war on terror, Hibbert and Hood had a goal of informing the British and American public of the greyness of the policy of killing terrorists by unmanned stand-off vehicles. Most people are aware of the collateral damage of civilian casualties, but few are aware of all that goes into the lead-up to the button pushing. The movie makes it clear that the decision to fire a Hellfire missile is not taken lightly. There are rules of engagement that must (should?) be followed. There are legal matters to consider. There are political criteria to be factored in. At one point in the movie, a politician opines that “if they blow up a mall, we win the propaganda war; if we kill the little girl, they win.”
As far as this particular scenario, Susan Helen Danford is based on the infamous “White Widow” of British tabloid fame. Samantha Lewthwaite is a British woman who was a convert to jihadism. Her husband was one of the 7/7 London bombers. She is accused of being involved in over 400 civilian deaths. She escaped Great Britain and ended up in Kenya as part of Al Shabaab. Al Shabaab is a jihadist organization based in Somalia, but active in East Africa. It is most famous for the suicide attack on the Westgate mall in Kenya. Lewthwaite has been linked to that attack. No doubt there is a Powell (and many others) tasked with bringing her to justice and when it happens it will probably involve a drone. The movie is excellent at showing how drone warfare works (or will work in the future – apparently the movie is ahead of its time a bit on ornithopters and insectothopters).
When the day of reckoning for the “White Widow” comes, it’s doubtful it will be as cinematic. Without the constraints of “based on a true story”, the screenplay can manipulate the narrative to edge the audience consistently toward the edge of their sheets. Everything that happens has to happen to reach the conclusion. Pull one domino out and the whole arc collapses. For example, Farah risks his life to buy the rest of the bread, so Alia can go home, but… Still, I prefer this kind of manipulation for entertainment purposes over “true” stories that take liberties with the facts.
“Eye in the Sky” is a very good movie and it is unfortunate that it will not reach the audience it deserves. Americans are comfortably clueless about what is going on in the drone war against terrorism. The movie makes you think about the subject, but does not tell you what to think. Hawks and doves can both enjoy the movie and hopefully contemplate the other side of the argument. I feel Hibbert meant for the movie to question the use of drones for targeted assassinations, but he is admirably balanced. When the female politician pronounces that the whole affair was shameful, Benson gets the last word: “Never tell a soldier that he does not know the cost of war.” I personally cannot confidently say whether the decision made in the movie was the right one. Isn’t that what we want in a movie that provokes thought?
GRADE = A