Would you kill a completely innocent nine-year old girl if you knew that killing her would save the lives of perhaps eighty men, women and children who are the targets of terrorist suicide bombers? It’s a fairly standard question that you might be asked in a university ethics class, the sort of question that might be debated ad infinitum by theoretical moralists. In director Gavin Hood’s intense political thriller, Eye in the Sky, the characters do not have the luxury of that kind of lengthy consideration. They are faced with it right now, and the clock is ticking.
The taut drama begins when Colonel Katherine Powell (Helen Mirren), a British officer commanding a secret drone program in cooperation with the government of Kenya as well as with U.S. allies, learns that three top terrorist targets in Kenya, one of whom is a British citizen turned terrorist leader named Susan Danford (Lex King), will be in Nairobi meeting with two new teenaged recruits—one from Britain and one from the United States. A worldwide network of military personnel, including ground forces in Nairobi, monitors in Hawaii and Singapore, drone pilots in Las Vegas, and her commander, Lieutenant General general (Alan Rickman in his final screen role) at a table in London with a bevy of British politicians—all in simultaneous communication. The object for the day is to capture the terrorists, particularly Danford, whom colonel Powell is avid about bringing back to stand trial in Britain But when the drone surveillance reveals that the two recruits are being given suicide vests and are clearly about to set off on a mission from that house, the strategy changes quickly from a capture to a kill scenario. The military commanders want to launch a hellfire missile into the house to stop the terrorists.
Turns out that in this modern kind of disengaged warfare, where strikes are made from halfway across the globe by pilots unstaffed drones, and decisions are made in the boardroom instead of on the battlefield, it is not possible to simply order such a strike. Lawyers must be consulted in order to determine whether such a strike would be legal. What, after all, are the legal ramifications of targeting two British citizens? And don’t even get them started on the fact that one of the terrorists is an American. Politicians must be consulted to weigh in on the policy implications of such a strike, as well as the propaganda war that would surround it. Nothing is a simple yes or no, and no one seems willing to make an actual decision. “Kick it upstairs” becomes the refrain of the film, and Colonel Powell’s legal advisor kicks the decision up to the attorney general, who needs to speak to the Foreign Secretary, and ultimately the American Secretary of State must get involved.
That part of the film is a frustrating and mild satire of how war is waged, and the hundred indecisions and hundred visions and revisions that are involved. But the intensity of the movie is dialed up significantly when a 9-year-old girl, whose family lives next door to the house where the terrorists are meeting, sets up a table on the street directly in front of the target house to sell bread. Those watching in London are appalled. In Las Vegas, American drone pilot Steve Watts (Aaron Paul of TV’s Breaking Bad) and his new partner Carrie Gershon (Phoebe Fox), are stunned—they’ve been delighted watching the girl playing with her hula hoop—and it doesn’t help that neither of them has been involved in a missile launch before. Watts demands an estimate of likely collateral damage if they fire the missile. What are the girl’s chances of being killed? In the meantime, the politicians in London debate the ethics of the situation, and once again start making phone calls, this time including the Prime Minister himself.
On the ground, undercover agent Jama Farah (played by Academy Award nominee Barkhad Abdi from Captain Phillips—remember “Look at me! Look at me! I am the captain now.”) who has maneuvered a tiny drone in the shape of a fly into the house itself to spy on the inhabitants, realizes the danger posed by, and to, the little girl, and tries to save the situation from the ground. I can’t tell you anything else about what happens without playing the spoiler, but it is intense right up until the last frame.
Mirren is, as always, impressive as the fiercely monomaniacal Colonel Powell, who, it turns out, will do almost anything to achieve the military solution she is convinced must occur. Paul, in what is certainly his best work since Breaking Bad, is gut-wrenchingly sympathetic in his role as the one with his finger on the trigger while politics swirl bewilderingly around his head. Abdi is intense and authentic as the man on the ground. And Alan Rickman is at his best as the frustrated general trying to negotiate the minefield that is the political atmosphere of the situation room. This is a remarkably talented ensemble cast in the kind of film that is all too rare nowadays: one that unfolds like the script of a well-crafted stage play. Yes, people actually speak in this film, audibly and in complete sentences. And it’s a summer movie! Screenwriter Guy Hibbert deserves a good deal of credit for that, but of course, so does Hood.
In the end, you may not be sure the right decision was made. Nor does Hood truly take a stand. He is concerned to give each point of view its just due, from the most gung-ho proponent of the strike (Powell) to the political advisor who believes that a capture was always the only moral solution. The film explores the complexities of modern warfare—the moral implications of killing from a distance through impersonal drone strikes. When one of the characters suggests that such a situation makes it easy for the generals to order strikes on any desired targets, Rickman’s response, his last important speech on screen, is that she should “Never tell a soldier that he does not know the cost of war.” The strain that Watts and his partner go through explains to a large extent why drone pilots sometimes suffer from PTSD. There are ultimately no answers in Eye in the Sky. Just a lot of questions that, perhaps, we should be asking.
Three Tennysons and half a Shakespeare for this one.