Eye in the Sky

Year: 2015

Director: Gavin Hood

Producer: Ged Doherty, Colin Firth, David Lancaster

Starring: Helen Mirren, Aaron Paul, Alan Rickman, Barkhad Abdi, Jeremy Northam, Iain Glen

Cinematography: Haris Zambarloukos

Country: United Kingdom

It’s nice to see that, even at the highest levels of public service, hand balling of major decisions still occurs with elected officials afraid to make decisions that fall well within the scope of the role we elected them for. It reminds us that they are, in fact human, prone to making mistakes and errors of judgement. In an odd way, Eye in the Sky is a timely reminder of the weight that our elected officials bear in the War on Terror and how easily they can get it wrong.

Director Gavin Hood’s (Academy Award winning director of Tsotsi) Eye in the Sky revolves around the targeting of terrorists in a fictional Al-Shabaab stronghold located in Nairobi, Kenya. All goes well with US pilot Steve Watts (played here by Aaron Paul — better known from Breaking Bad) skilfully controlling the Unmanned Combat Aerial Vehicle (UCAV, the bigger, badder brother to the well-known acronym UAV that we have all begun to associate with the field of modern conflict), ready to release weapons from 20,000 feet that will shortly end the lives of several British ex-pats.

That is until a young Kenyan girl (brilliantly acted by the unknown Aisha Takow) begins selling bread a few metres from the point of impact of the missiles.

This is where Eye in the Sky really takes off. Military officers, led by Helen Mirren (brilliant as usual) and Alan Rickman (in his last role before his untimely passing), argue for the pragmatic approach — the sacrificing of one life in order to save many from the suicide bombers identified in the target building. Civilian officials debate the political and legal ramifications of launching a strike in a foreign country that they are not at war with (a possible nod to the recent US drone strikes in Somalia, a country that the US is definitely not in official conflict with), and agents on the ground — led by Barkhad Abdi of Captain Phillips fame — feverishly attempt to lure the girl away from the target building with varying degrees of success.

However, unlike the pinpoint accuracy with which the UCAV strikes its targets from the air, Eye in the Sky misses its mark in attempting to portray the ethical considerations when launching a missile at human targets from thousands of miles away.

In a world where human lives are often reduced to grainy images on television screens seconds before they’re quite literally ripped apart by drones piloted thousands of miles away, it’s not often we stop to ask ourselves what “warfare” has become. It’s easy to argue that using drones instead of soldiers on the ground to win the war is the safe and sensible option but that nagging question of whether it’s the right thing to do is the much harder one to answer.

Whilst Eye in the Sky provides a thoughtful and interesting view of the debate facing the British commanders as to whether the death of a terrorist intent on possibly detonating a suicide vest and potentially killing up to 80 people justifies the collateral damage that they will inflict (a debate horrifyingly reduced to an estimate of the statistical probability of killing the girl — manipulated into a figure that is neither accurate or just), this debate centres around the legality of the act, not the ethics that I was most interested to see considered. In fact, the majority of the movie centres around the main characters trying to decide whether the strike will either a) send them to prison or b) lose them the vote at the next election.

On the other hand Director Gavin Hood’s skilful art of conveying the sense of frustration simmering and, at times, exploding to the surface on the part of the military commanders as the politicians constantly handball the issue in order to avoid having to make decisions themselves makes the movie worthwhile and, at times, reasonably light hearted given the subject matter. I found myself throwing my hands up in sympathy every time Alan Rickman’s character of Lieutenant General Benson asked whether or not he could proceed with the strike and was told by a noticeably sweating Minister of Defence that the decision would have to be “referred up”.

Eye in the Sky’s cast is its strength. Helen Mirren’s Colonel Powell and Alan Rickman’s General Benson have been tracking their targets for years and when they’re right in their grip we feel the frustration (even if we are left with an uneasy mood with how easily they attempt to sway the debate in their favour). Aaron Paul, whilst not quite having the swagger or confidence that I’d expect from a US military pilot very accurately portrays the conflicted emotions facing anyone who’s about to end the life of a young girl with a simple pull of a trigger and Barkhad Abdi again finds his feet easily amongst the well-established names in the cast by playing a British agent on the ground, reminding us why Paul Greengrass trusted him to front the Somali Pirate crew in Captain Phillips.

This film is very much a British production — the US officials are portrayed as being trigger happy cowboys — but it is easily an allegory for the current state of warfare being waged around the world where human life is worth very little. Poignant, timely, insightful, with just the right amount of humour to avoid being a plodding political-legal drama, Eye in the Sky provides just under two hours of intense viewership that will leave you with much feel uneasy about when you next turn on the news and see the latest in drone strikes from the comfort of your armchair at home.

****

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