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Eye in the Sky

March 18, 2016
Eye in the Sky

For some inexplicable reason, Eye in the Sky does not play the Alan Parsons Project song of the same title over the closing credits. This is possibly the mist significant flaw I can find in an otherwise finely-honed and powerful meditation on the ethical morass that surrounds the current weapon of choice for prosecuting the “War on Terror”: the drone strike.

Looking at director Gavin Hood’s résumé, there’s remarkably little “action” for a war movie. It’s much more of a talking movie, recalling Sidney Lumet works like 12 Angry Men or, more appropriately, Fail Safe. It’s the kind that could plausibly be adapted to a stage play if the director could work out a way to depict the dozen or so locations involved in Guy Hibbert’s screenplay.

In a way, that was the problem for Hood and editor Megan Gill as well: the chain of command behind this one operation is truly global, and jumping between sites could easily get confusing to an audience. In practice, though, the transitions are seamless; we never get lost reorienting ourselves. It’s the sort of invisible miracle that goes unrecognized precisely because it works so well.

The mission is being run through British military intelligence, through a unit led by Col. Katherine Powell (Helen Mirren). She is coordinating with the U.S. military to use a Predator drone — piloted by Steve Watts (Aaron Paul) just outside Las Vegas — for overhead imagery, and intelligence analysis help from a listening station in Hawaii. These supplement the Kenyan troops on the ground in the Somali militia-controlled area just outside Nairobi where she believes Susan Danford a.k.a. Ayesha Al-Hady (Lex King) to be meeting with other high-level targets.

Originally the mission was to verify Danford’s identity, then have the Kenyan troops capture her for interrogation. But she moves to a house in an area they can’t reach without causing a riot, so they must send in Jama Farah (Barkhad Abdi) to put a video bug inside that house. And when they do, they see a lot more than Susan Danford: two suicide vests are being prepared, most likely for the two new recruits, one of whom was radicalized in Chicago.

The Predator was on hand to observe, but it does carry two Hellfire missiles. Obviously Powell wants to strike and take out the terrorists before they can blow up two more heavily populated areas, but she needs authorization to extend her mission on the fly like that. Worse, the compound is in the middle of a residential area, and there are innocent people on the street all around. In particular, there’s adorable little Alia (Aisha Takow), whose family doesn’t like these radicals more than we do, and she’s sitting just on the other side of a wall selling bread to help support them.

To make the decision, Powell reports to Lieutenant General Frank Benson (Alan Rickman), who is in a room with the Attorney General (Richard McCabe), a representative from the Foreign Secretary’s office (Jeremy Northam), and another politician (Monica Dolan). Much of the abstract discussion takes place in this room, with military, legal, political, and ethical perspectives all playing off each other.

If they allow the strike, innocent people — especially Alia — could be hurt. If they don’t, more almost certainly will be. Are they allowed to call in a drone strike on a British citizen? What about the American military’s participation in a strike against an American citizen? And then there is the propaganda war: how will it look if a drone strike kills innocent bystanders, versus how it will look if terrorists bomb two marketplaces? But what will it look like if it leaks out that we didn’t stop those bombings when we could have?

What sets this apart from Lumet’s films is that there is no clear “right” answer at the end of the day, but there aren’t really any wrong ones either. All four of these core players have valid perspectives, and good points to make. And while they may run ideas up the chain to the Foreign Secretary (Iain Glen) as he deals with a bout of food poisoning while at an arms conference, or seek buy-in from the U.S. State Department, they ultimately have to come to a decision on this trolley problem within this one room, and all while the terrorists are preparing to leave and commit even more mass murder. The film is thoughtful and sober about all of this, and it’s bound to divide audiences sharply.

The one qualm I do have is a subtle one. As presented in this film, the chain of command behind a drone strike is long and involved, and hands are wrung at every step of the way in order to take all these considerations into account. In contrast, the other side just straps on bombs and goes to blow things up. Whether someone watching the film comes to the same conclusion the characters do, it still portrays our side as occupying the moral high ground in even considering all these questions. While I do believe that this is the case, the film plays to that assumption of mine. And in doing so, it reaffirms the hidden assumption that, at root, drone strikes are a legitimate approach so long as we wrap them in all this ethical hand-wringing. That underlying legitimacy is the one point that Eye in the Sky never really questions.

Worth It: yes.
Bechdel-Wallace Test: fail.

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