Think back to the recent Good Kill with Ethan Hawke. If you saw that 2015 indie drama then you’re already familiar with the kind of dilemma facing the men and women of the military who fly their craft not from a cockpit but from a computer station inside what looks like an abandoned site for discarded containers in the Nevada desert. They’re guiding drones, watching their seven or eight thousand mile away target on a computer monitor while clasping a joystick, ready to fire.
That same subject of drone warfare and the dilemmas it causes is the central theme to the new British thriller Eye in the Sky from director Gavin Hood, but there are major differences. Where Hawke’s film was more of a character study as one man wrestles with his conscience of making a kill from the safety of an air-conditioned ‘office’ half way around the globe, Eye in the Sky is plot driven, and it’s undeniably intense.
Giving the impression that everything is playing out in real time, Eye in the Sky stars Helen Mirren as Colonel Katherine Powell, an aggressively determined military intelligence officer who heads a mission to capture a British woman and an American national in Nairobi, Kenya, both of whom have joined forces with a jihadist terrorist group based in East Africa; Al-Shabaab.
When a mini-drone camera reveals that the Brit, the American and other Al-Shabaab terrorists tucked away in a house in the middle of a populated Kenyan village are preparing for an immediate suicide mission, everything changes. The colonel is no longer interested in a capture; these people need to be taken out before they inflict devastating damage. But the politicians of Whitehall are not happy. “They want her alive,” states Lieutenant General Benson (Alan Rickman, to whom the film is dedicated). “They can’t have her alive,” Katherine replies. And there’s the rub.
The politicians sit in a London meeting room with Rickman’s Lieutenant General, watching the surveillance on large monitors while those same images are seen from a military base in Pearl Harbor, Hawaii; an underground operations center with Mirren in Surrey, England, and those containers in Nevada. All can see what’s happening inside that small house in Nairobi, and each person has a different opinion as to what should be done. To the military, it’s obvious; take the terrorists out, and do it now. To the politicians, things are different. First, they’re there to witness a capture, not a kill, and second, without the consent of those above them, they refuse to grant the military the permission it needs to continue.
What follows is a fascinating debate of what is right, what is morally wrong, and who wins the propaganda war as tempers flare and time ticks away. Then, just at the moment when permission is finally and reluctantly given to proceed with a kill, an innocent little village girl walks onto the surveillance screens and is seen setting up a table outside of the target house in Kenya, preparing to sell bread for her family. Steve Watts (Aaron Paul) is the drone pilot with his hand on the joystick, and he suddenly questions his orders.
The events that follow play out as though the whole piece was adapted from a live theatrical production; characters from their respective military bases and that meeting room in Whitehall communicate instantly with each other as they stare at computer monitors, all watching the events on the other side of the world unfold before them as they debate what needs to be done while urgency builds and that clock ticks away. It really would make a terrific play.
Had the film remained at all times with the authorities in England and America while the Kenyan scenes were viewed solely on computer screens from afar, the dilemmas, the arguments and the agreements would have remained powerful. As written, the film gives an impression of not taking sides, yet it cheats with our feelings.
You find yourself wondering what decision you would make if you were in those positions of authority; make the kill and risk killing innocent victims or wait for another opportunity, and that’s what the film is going for. But it manipulates. We get to know the little girl in a way that the military would never be able to. We see her family, we know she’s nice and likes to play hula-hoop in the privacy of her courtyard, away from the eyes of local religious fanatics, and we like her. By concentrating on developing the character of the little girl in a way those on the other side of the world would never see, the film nudges our sympathies.
Certainly, by presenting the Kenyan scenes as though we were there creates extra tension in an already tightly-wound situation, but how stronger the film would have been had it remained solely from the viewpoint of the military and the politicians watching everything on a computer monitor. When seeing things exactly from their point of view, that’s when you could really ask yourself; what would I do? By becoming familiar with the little girl (Aisha Takow) the emotions are doubly stacked against Helen Mirren’s character’s wishes. It’s the one though important misstep of an otherwise riveting and extremely well-performed, intelligent thriller.
MPAA rating: R Length: 102 Minutes Overall Rating: 8 (out of 10)