Director: Gavin Hood
Cast: Helen Mirren, Aaron Paul, Alan Rickman and Barkhad Abdi
Running Time: 102 minutes
Release Date: April 15th
At the beginning of Eye in the Sky, we meet Lieutenant General Frank Benson (Alan Rickman) facing off against an intimidating foe: a wall of Baby Annabell dolls. Phone in hand, he worriedly tells an answering machine that he is unsure which one his granddaughter wants, but nonetheless picks a particular type, and buys it. That we soon learn that he has made the wrong decision, based on the limited information he was given and a failure to communicate, rightly sets off alarm bells when it comes to a rather more ambiguous decision that he has to make later on; one for which the consequences are graver than the embarrassment of sending a junior officer back to the toy shop.
Benson is part of an international mission to capture extremists inside a safe house in Nairobi, working with the UK government, the US Air Force, and undercover field agents in Kenya, under the command of Colonel Katherine Powell (Helen Mirren). When the situation escalates, Powell orders a drone strike on the safe house – but immediately before pilot Steve Watts (Aaron Paul) can pull the trigger, he observes a young girl, Alia, setting up a table to sell bread within the kill zone, and demands that his superiors reassess the situation.
What follows is a tense, intelligent, by times even darkly humorous and pointed exploration of the ethics involved in drone warfare, with all parties chiming in on collateral damage and accountability. Fine performances from all involved – Mirren’s powerfully unshakeable lead a stand-out – make all perspectives and motives believable and worthy of consideration. Intercut with arguments on all sides are scenes on the ground of Alia and the undercover agent Jama Farah (Abdi), who has bugged the safe house, literally, with a tiny fly-shaped camera to monitor the situation inside, heightening the tension and reminding us what’s at stake. This sounds heavy, but each perspective is presented so compellingly, with each development in Kenya so precarious, that it makes for a genuinely unpredictable and exciting story.
It’s also rare to see this kind of careful consideration of the issues in an ostensible blockbuster film, reversing the genre’s usual ‘shoot first, ask questions later’ philosophy. Eye in the Sky may be the term used to describe Watts, responsible for aerial surveillance, within the film, but it also suggests something God-like; a sense compounded by the responsibility of making life or death decisions. That the film really drags out these decisions, is the best possible comment on its subject matter. The frustration we feel as an audience at its bureaucracy, at how long it is taking to approve the strike, and our desire to see it made – even in questionable circumstances, without full governmental approval, or all of the information we need – is something we might interrogate in ourselves.
Eye in the Sky takes a good long look at drone warfare and does a remarkable job at showing it to us from all angles. Whether or not we like what we see, it’s hard to look away.