Earlier this week, news outlets reported on a story about a U.S. airstrike conducted with both manned and unmanned aircraft on an al-Shabab training camp in Somalia. The attack purportedly averted an imminent threat against U.S. and African troops and killed more than 150 militants at the compound. A Washington Post story mentioned that while there appeared to be no civilian casualties, the Pentagon was “still assessing the situation,” and anyone with a nose can smell the spin on that statement.
The news item has similar overtones to the smart and taut thriller Eye in the Sky, keeping the film’s premise and the moral quandaries it presents all too salient. Directed by Gavin Hood (Ender’s Game, Tsotsi), Eye in the Sky is a cerebral film in the vein of Sidney Lumet’s Fail Safe, examining the disconnect between ethics and bureaucracy behind modern warfare’s new rules of engagement—managing to keep the suspense and drama at heightened levels as people, in essence, debate via telephone and computers on whether or not to push a button.
Leading an all-star cast is Helen Mirren as Colonel Katherine Powell, a UK-based military officer who’s been tracking the actions of Susan Danford/Ayesha AL-Hady (Lex King), a Brit-turned-terrorist, for six years. The woman and her husband are numbers 4 and 5 on the East African most wanted list, and the toughened Powell is eager to capture them both. The film’s military operations take place in Kenya, but are coordinated in real time from several other locations: Las Vegas, Hawaii, London and Singapore. Under Powell’s guidance, as special forces move into position to finally apprehend her suspects, surveillance reveals that the small group is planning a suicide attack, ratcheting the operation up from “capture” to “kill.” Las Vegas drone pilot Steve Watts (Aaron Paul) is ordered to launch a Hellfire missile at the target house, but he hesitates. Watts and the other military officials spot something on their respective screens that throws the international operation into upheaval: A young girl has entered the “kill zone” to sell freshly baked bread.
The gut-wrenching questions begin. Is it permissible to sacrifice the life of “just one girl” in order to save dozens, if not hundreds, from impending suicide attacks? Is it justifiable to attack if military intelligence can prove, statistically, that the girl’s likely only going to be injured? What ramifications does an attack mean for the propaganda war? God forbid what happens if a video is posted to YouTube.
Much screen time is dedicated to following the bureaucrats as they engage in a game of press-the-button or pass-the-buck. The late Alan Rickman plays Lt. General Frank Benson, Powell’s commanding officer, who seconds the colonel’s argument for championing the greater good. Refreshingly, both characters aren’t painted as evil, trigger-happy soldiers: They understand the consequences, but firmly believe in the mission and that the end justifies the means. Other officials in the war room with Benson either want to get permission from someone further up the food chain or obtain assurances that they won’t be blamed should things go awry. When they consult with their American counterparts, it’s almost comical that, without hesitation, the Americans tell the Brits to bomb for the greater good. Thankfully, Watts is behind the button, serving as the film’s moral compass. He uses the legalities and rules of war to stall, hoping that everything can be done to move that one girl out of the way. Barkhad Abdi (Captain Phillips) is captivating as the film’s unlikely hero, Jama Fara, an on-the-ground operative who’s ordered to risk his own life to save the girl’s—all without mucking up the operation.
Eye in the Sky is sure to draw comparisons to last year’s Good Kill, starring Ethan Hawke, though the 2015 film focused on the personal toll that anonymous drone strikes have on the new breed of “pilots.” Like the drones themselves, Eye in the Sky pulls back to give a bird’s eye view of military machinations. The war room sequences, with government officials struggling to seek permission to fire, are somewhat similar to the level of absurdity (sans slapstick) in Dr. Strangelove (a contemporary of Fail Safe, it should be noted, though the tone of each is markedly different from the other). One odd moment, however, involves Rickman picking out the wrong kind of doll for his granddaughter that elicits a few laughs, but even if it’s meant to paint Rickman’s General as vulnerably, personally human, it seems totally out-of-step with the rest of the film.
Told from a distinctly Western perspective, the “terrorists” are naturally kept anonymous, monitored from the other end of scopes and cameras. Even Susan Danford’s conversion backstory is minimized, which seems like a missed opportunity to tell a more complete story. The only Africans we get to know are soldiers on the side of the American and British coalition, as well as the little girl and her family. Yes, it’s a little manipulative, and Eye in the Sky probably would have fared better limiting its focus to only those on the inside, but at its core, the film is a welcome piece of mindfulness and moral complexity on our increasingly black-and-white world stage.
Director: Gavin Hood
Writer: Guy Hibbert
Starring: Helen Mirren, Aaron Paul, Alan Rickman, Barkhad Abdi, Jeremy Northam, Iain Glen and Phoebe Fox
Release Date: March 11, 2016
Christine N. Ziemba is a Los Angeles-based freelance pop culture writer and regular contributor to Paste. You can follow her on Twitter.