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Review: Eye in the Sky (2016)

Eye in the Sky (2016)

Directed by: Gavin Hood

Premise: British and American military forces and political officials coordinate a drone strike in Kenya. When a little girl occupies the kill zone, the soldiers and politicians debate whether or not to go through with the mission.

What Works: When military matters are presented in motion pictures it is quite rare that they are presented with any complexity. The few films critical of American militarism (i.e. Platoon) are overwhelmingly outnumbered by movies that celebrate American military might such as 13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi, Top Gun, Rambo: First Blood Part II, and Black Hawk Down. In these movies, deference is always given to the military characters while civilians and especially politicians are regarded as obstructionists. Eye in the Sky contravenes that trend. This is not a movie that slanders the military nor is it a complete rebuke of drone warfare. But it doesn’t celebrate the use of force either and it evades the moral simplicity that almost always characterizes cinema violence. Eye in the Sky concerns several groups of people spread all over the world who are coordinating a drone strike. The mission is led by a British colonel (Helen Mirren) who consults with a general (Alan Rickman) in London with the British Attorney General (Jeremy Northam); she also directs a pair of American pilots (Aaron Paul and Phoebe Fox) operating the drone from Arizona. The targets of the strike are terrorists who are on the Western governments’ kill list. They are holed up in a house in a Kenyan neighborhood and when it’s discovered that the terrorists are preparing for a suicide bombing the threat becomes imminent. Matters are complicated when a young Kenyan girl sets up a bread stand next to the terrorist headquarters, putting her within the kill zone of the missile impact. The various military and governmental characters must then debate whether to go through with the strike. The film takes the characters and the audience through the legal requirements and moral calculations of the attack and with each new variable the justification has to be renegotiated. Eye in the Sky does not allow for easy answers. As the military characters point out, they may have to sacrifice one innocent girl to save those who will be lost if the suicide bombing is carried out. But even that kind of utilitarian thinking is further complicated, as it’s pointed out that killing an innocent sets back the ongoing battle for hearts and minds. This negotiation goes on throughout the film and Eye in the Sky is a terrific military thriller that dramatizes the legal and moral problems of drone warfare in a way that embraces the complexity of the topic.

What Doesn’t: The only serious fault of Eye in the Sky is the lack of clear stakes if the terrorists escape. The movie establishes that the people inside of the house are preparing for a suicide bombing and that they must be stopped before they leave the premises. But the terrorist threat remains intellectual and even hypothetical whereas the loss of this girl’s life is immediate and dramatically tangible. We never get any closer to the terrorists than the military and political leaders do but the little girl and her family members are characterized. That creates a dramatic imbalance between the two options. The filmmakers rely upon viewers’ awareness of terrorism and our fear of it to fill in this understanding. But the merits of this approach are debatable. On one hand it shows a great deal of respect for the audience; the filmmakers expect us to be informed and to bring that knowledge to the picture. But on the other hand, it is fair to expect that stories are dramatically self-contained and the filmmakers may be giving general audiences too much credit as to their awareness of drone strikes and the complexities of terrorism.

Bottom Line: Eye in the Sky is a smart and tense thriller. The picture presents us with complex questions about done warfare in a way that fully accounts for the moral implications, human consequences, and strategic repercussions. This is an essential entry in the genre of post-9/11 cinema. 

Episode: #591 (April 17, 2016)