Eye in the Sky is a beautifully calibrated, superbly acted, morally compelling and thoughtful film that also couldn’t possibly be more relevant to the contemporary world. As such, sadly, it also became kind of a box office flop. Still, it’s a terrific movie, and one I wholeheartedly recommend.
Helen Mirren plays a British military officer, Colonel Katherine Powell, tasked with monitoring an Islamist terrorist group operating out of Kenya and Somalia. As the film begins, she’s planned an joint op with the US and Kenyan military to capture the 2nd, 3rd and 5th most wanted East African terrorists. One of them, it turns out, is a British national, Susan Danford, now known as Ayesha Al Hadi. A radicalized American is also in her group. The Brits have intel about a meeting of these terrorist leaders, and the Kenyan military stands by for a raid and capture. American drones watch from above. But the intel is faulty, and the drones are unable to confirm the identities of all the targets. The bad guys pile into a van, and drive through the streets of Nairobi to a much more secure location, a house in an area heavily patrolled by armed militias. Powell has to call off the Kenyan operation. However, a Somali agent (Barkhad Abdi, as good in this as he was in Captain Phillips) is able to infiltrate a market close to the terrorist house, and send in this freaky little tiny insect-size drone, which gets into the house, confirms the targets. And then the drone camera captures, in another room, a chilling image; suicide vests and packets of C-4. And Powell realizes that a suicide bomb attack may well be imminent.
The story cuts between several locations. One is the tiny op center for the drone, where the pilot, Steve Watts (Breaking Bad‘s Aaron Paul) awaits orders. Another is a conference room, where General Frank Benson (the late Alan Rickman, in his last film) is joined by two cabinet ministers, ready to observe the operation, and approve or deny any change in plans. Another is the market place in Kenya, where a little girl, Alia (Aisha Takow), plays with a hula hoop her father made for her, and also goes into the market to sell the bread her mother bakes. And her sales table is right next to the wall of the terrorist’s house.
Powell is certain that the terrorists are planning a suicide bombing. Since capturing them is no longer possible, she believes a drone strike is justified. But Watts, the American pilot, can see, in his cameras, this child next to the strike site. He insists on another collateral damage assessment. Powell is furious, but agrees. And the British cabinet ministers will not approve the attack. They insist on getting authorization from the British foreign minister. And meanwhile, of course, they all can see images from the teeny bug drone inside the house. They can see two young men donning suicide vests, those vests loaded with explosives, the explosives wired together, the men making their farewell propaganda videos. The clock is ticking, and Powell is desperate to authorize a kill order.
Meanwhile, their Somali agent continually risks his life for the girl, offering to purchase all her bread. But the little girl just goes back to her table and sells some more.
When we think of drone warfare, we tend to think of it as antiseptic. Clean strikes, from long distance. We also tend to think of it as fairly dispassionate. Intel provides a target, and our drones take out bad guys. Boom. This film reminds us that human beings operate those astonishing weapons, that those people have feelings and consciences and scruples. Aaron Paul is extraordinary, playing an ordinary soldier desperate somehow to obey his orders, but also keep civilian casualties to a minimum. Desperate to save the life of a child.
But Mirren and Rickman are no less remarkable, playing career soldiers who see an opportunity to strike a crippling blow against a vicious enemy. Powell and Benson know how terrorist groups operate. They believe that the people they can see donning suicide vests plan to launch an immediate attack on civilian targets. By risking the death of this one child, they may save dozens of civilian lives, including the lives of other children. Meanwhile, the politicians in Benson’s conference room have to weigh the propaganda costs. Possibly saving 80 civilians may damage the hearts-and-minds war, if the cost is a single child.
As we left the theater, my wife and I were both pretty shaken by the film, and my wife commented that she could see, and even agree with, the perspectives of every single character, even when those characters passionately disagreed. I thought so too. It’s a film in which each character represents a point of view, in addition to being an interesting character in his or her own right.
I especially loved Mirren’s performance, even at times when she seemed a bit off-puttingly bloodthirsty. Because, as Rickman’s character says at the end of the film, (probably the last line spoken by Alan Rickman on camera), “never tell a soldier that he does not know the cost of war.” That cost is front and center in Eye in the Sky.
And that’s part of what makes it such an important film. Children die in the war on terror. And sometimes, we’re the ones who kill them. Is it worth it? I love the way that this film does not provide a comforting answer to that disturbing question.