Eye in the Sky
Directed by: Gavin Hood.
Written by: Guy Hibbert.
Starring: Helen Mirren (Colonel Katherine Powell), Aaron Paul (Steve Watts), Alan Rickman (Lieutenant General Frank Benson), Barkhad Abdi (Jama Farah), Jeremy Northam (Brian Woodale), Iain Glen (British Foreign Secretary James Willett), Phoebe Fox (Carrie Gershon), Monica Dolan (Angela Northman), Faisa Hassan (Fatima Mo'Allim), Aisha Takow (Alia Mo'Allim), Armaan Haggio (Musa Mo'Allim), Carl Beukes (Sergeant Mike Gleeson), Richard McCabe (George Matherson), Michael O'Keefe (Ken Stanitzke), Kim Engelbrecht (Lucy).
Eye in the Sky is a thriller, and a fine one, about drone warfare that deliberately – perhaps over deliberately – doesn’t give the audience an easy out – a way to feel superior to the film, or to make easy moral judgments. The film has no answers, but simply sits back and asks questions and then leaves it to the audience to decide what is right and wrong. In general, I appreciate this approach, although in this case, I felt the whole thing was too perfectly designed – it presents too perfect an unanswerable moral quandary – to truly have the impact it wants to have. This is a film that seems like it wants to inspire debate, but doesn’t really end up giving the audience much room for debate. No matter what side you’re on, you’re both right and wrong – and the film makes it too easy to simply throw your hands up and not take any side at all.
The film is about a drone mission in Africa, that is supposed to be little else than an observation one. Helen Mirren is Colonel Katherine Powell, who has been tracking a British Citizen, who has converted to Islam and become radicalized by her husband, for years. She finally thinks she knows where she and her husband will be, and has ground troops ready to arrest her. She has the help of the Americans – who have assigned drone pilot Steve Watts (Aaron Paul), stationed in Las Vegas, to simply watch the house the couple is supposed to be at. But then things take an unexpected turn – this isn’t just a regular meeting, but is actually meant to prepare for a suicide bombing. They have eyes inside the house, and see men suiting up with bomb vests, to carry out an attack who knows where. Capture then has just become too dangerous – but letting the men leave to carry out their attack is also not an option. They could make Watts fire a hellfire missile at the house, blowing it up, but there will be collateral damage – seen here as a young girl selling bread outside the house, who will almost certainly be killed if they strike. But if they don’t strike, then how many other little girls – and their families – will be destroyed.
Eye in the Sky wraps everything up in a nice, neat little package then that becomes unanswerable. The bulk of the movie is the internal debates about whether or not to fire the missile. Legally, it appears, that they can fire the missile, but at the same time this mission wasn’t authorized to be deadly. The British bureaucracy dithers and twiddles their thumbs – passing the buck from one person to the next, none of whom want to make the decision. The higher ups in America are unsympathetic, and just want to fire the damn missile already. Watts, who actually has to pull the trigger, and thus, end the little girl’s life is much less sure.
The movie is well directed by Gavin Hood, who bounces between smaller films, and big blockbusters, and here has crafted a fairly tense thriller. The performances are almost uniformly excellent – Mirren, single minded and driven, not caring who dies if she can accomplish her mission, Paul, as morally conflicted (because that is after all why you cast Paul in anything), Alan Rickman as a General in the room with the British bureaucrats, who is frustrated by their lack of response (who also doesn’t think twice about the fact that he’s buying a present for granddaughter around the same age as the girl he may have a role in killing). There are fine British actors, dithering very British-like throughout the film. Barkhad Abdi, Oscar nominee from Captain Phillips, is pretty much wasted as an alley to the British and Americans, who is still the only one in actual harm’s way.
The major problem I had with Eye in the Sky, is that the whole thing seems overly calculated. It lacks true moral complexity, but instead has a manufactured one. In the end, I think, the movie takes the easy way out – it takes no stand on drone warfare at all, and instead, simply tells the audience there is no solution. Perhaps that is true – but the problem is that it’s fairly clear that is what the movie is saying from its opening scenes right down to the end. There is nothing that truly makes us re-evaluate our stance on the issues. The film dithers almost as much as its characters do, while criticizing those characters for doing just that. The film works, mainly, as a thriller. I just don’t think it’s nearly as complex as it thinks it is.