‘Eye in the Sky’ Is Drone Drama Done Right
Ethical questions, Alan Rickman ... and just the right amount of comedy
The guy responsible for X-Men Origins: Wolverine directed the most tense political thriller I’ve ever seen. In drone warfare, who decides to kill and why? And is it worth sacrificing one life to save 80?
These are the questions Gavin Hood’s Eye in the Sky grapples with. And in addition to a great thriller, it’s the best war movie I’ve seen so far in 2016 and the best movie about drones ever made.
Anyone who took a survey level ethics class in college will be familiar with the setup of Eye in the Sky. In a common classroom exercise called the Trolley Problem, students decide between two unpleasant fates. A train is speeding down the track and at the end of the line are five people tied to the track. There’s no way to save them.
But the student can pull a lever to switch the train onto a different track and save those five lives. The only problem is that some poor bastard waits on the other track. Do nothing and five die. Pull the lever and kill one to save five.
That’s Eye in the Sky in a nutshell — the Trolley Problem done with drones, a beautiful script and world class actors.
Eye in the Sky tells the story of a single drone operation. The British and Kenyan governments have teamed up to capture wanted terrorist Susan Danford, a British citizen. Danford and her husband work with Al Shabab and have planned and executed a slew of bombings in East Africa.
The plan is simple — use a Reaper drone remotely piloted from the United States to spy on Danford. The team has intelligence that says she’ll be in Nairobi. So the team plans to see who she meets with and then capture her once she’s in public and outside of an Al Shabab-controlled suburb.
The drone watches Danford move through the Kenyan streets as she meets up with both her husband and another terrorist from the West’s list of East Africa’s most wanted. The group has come together to set up suicide vests for young recruits. They’re filming living wills and readying explosives. People are going to die.
The film’s Reaper carries two Hellfire missiles and is ready to attack … but it’s not so simple.
Helen Mirren plays Col. Katherine Powell, the officer in charge of the British-led drone operation in Kenya. She storms around a command center below the earth, coordinating all the different moving parts of the mission. Once she sees that she has the opportunity to stop a terrorist attack, she wants to unleash the Reaper’s missiles.
The late Alan Rickman is Lt. Gen. Frank Benson, a member of the British brass walking PMs in London through a basic drone operation. When the the team in Kenya uncovers the suicide vest plot, the Whitehall officials get uncomfortable.
No one in the room wants to authorize the attack. In fact, there’s some question about who’s the ultimate authority in such a kill chain. What follows is a Kubrickian game of buck-passing through the Western halls of power that resembles something out of Dr. Strangelove.
Iain Glen, playing the Foreign Secretary is particularly hilarious. He’s in Thailand, at an arms trade show, schilling the British defense industry to foreign investors. Between a nasty bout of food poisoning and his squeamish political nature, he doesn’t want to have anything to do with approving a kill order. He’s not alone.
Breaking Bad’s Aaron Paul is an American drone operator in Las Vegas. He joined the military to help pay off his college loans. It’s a job for him. But he doesn’t want to pull the trigger for one very important reason — there’s a 10-year-old girl selling bread to passerbys along the outside fence of the home the drone would strike.
Everyone knew there’d be collateral damage, but it’s quite another thing to have the smiling face of an innocent child grinning up at you through your Gorgon megapixel camera.
Eye in the Sky is an excellent film. I literally scooted to the edge of my seat during the final half hour as Kenyan agents moved through the streets of Al Shabab territory, desperately trying to find a way to move the little girl away from the zone of impact.
Hood did an incredible job of humanizing every single character in the kill chain. None of the soldiers nor politicians seem monstrous or evil. Everyone is conflicted.
“If Al Shabab kills 80 people, we win the propaganda war,” one of the wonks says. “If we kill one little girl in a drone strike … they do.”
He’s right, but that would be cold comfort for the 80 people who die so the politicians can avoid making a decision that — according to Rickman — “is obvious to anyone not trying to avoid making a decision.”
War is hellish, brutal and terrible. Our modern wars are more ethically and technologically complicated every day. But one thing never changes — good people get hurt no matter what you do.
“I have attended the immediate aftermath of five suicide bombings,” Rickman tells a squeamish suit toward the end of the film. “Never tell a soldier he does not know the cost of war.”