In Director Gavin Hood’s Eye in the Sky, modern warfare has become war by committee in a tense film that explores how the countries of the world handle the conflicts of today. But is the way we fight now the right way?
Colonel Katherine Powell (Helen Mirren) is on the hunt for a terrorist, British National Susan Danford (Lex King). Danford is supposed to be hiding in Kenya and Powell has an American drone patrolling the skies as she runs an operation to try and capture Danford. In England, Lieutenant General Frank Benson (Alan Rickman) sits in a room with the British Attorney General (Richard McCabe) and two members of the British government. The drone is controlled in Nevada by pilot Steve Watts (Aaron Paul) with Carrie Gershon (Phoebe Fox) responsible for using the drone’s camera to identify targets and keep watch on the mission area. On the ground in Kenya, the operation is supported by Jama Farah (Barkhad Abdi), who uses surveillance tech to keep watch inside the house in which Danford is hiding. It is discovered that Danford and her colleagues have two suicide vests in the house and Powell calls for the operation to shift from capture to kill. However, using a drone strike will result in collateral damage including a young girl named Alia (Aisha Takow), who is selling bread to help support her family. With this new wrinkle, the political football of bombing a house in a friendly country in order to eliminate a terrorist cell is passed around from the British government over to the Americans and back again, all while Powell frets that her target will slip away once again.
Eye in the Sky does an excellent job showing how warfare is now handled by committee and how that handcuffs the military. In the old days, the military would have a theater of operations and the generals would decide where attacks would be made. Now, war has changed considerably as nations fight, not other nations, but organizations. There is no formal declaration of war and skirmishes often take place in friendly countries as terrorist cells can be found anywhere and everywhere. So now, politicians get involved, hoping to stem not only bodily damage to those caught in the crossfire, but also the political damage of operating in sovereign nations. Though the events in Eye in the Sky do become a bit tedious at times, it does a great job showing how politicians will pass the buck to other politicians above them in order to avoid making a decision. This, of course exasperates the military, but they aren’t painted in the greatest light here either. Powell is portrayed almost as a Captain Ahab-type who will stop at nothing until her quarry is captured or killed. She does some very questionable things in order to get her way. The film also does a good job showing the cost of drone warfare. Even though Watts is half a world away from the target area, he and Gershon are deeply affected by their actions and the repercussions of those actions. One other thing I wasn’t too keen on, though, was the kind of stereotypical depiction of the U.S. government representatives in this little drama. While the Brits hem and haw and wring their hands about what to do, the Americans that come in and offer advice are simply like, “Pull the trigger, pussy.” It was a little too pat for me. I would have liked to have seen a politician on the American side have the same reservations as some of the Brits. I think it would have made the situation even grayer, but it may have also served to make the film even more tedious in parts.
The cast here is excellent. Rickman appears in his final film and gives a measured and nuanced performance as the general who is a military man, but must also dance the line of politician as well. Mirren is great as usual as a tough military woman who doesn’t let sentimentality stand in the way of accomplishing her goal. Paul and Fox also do well as the drone operators. They have some heart-wrenching scenes as they grapple with their orders.
Overall, Eye in the Sky is a solid, tense film about how war is conducted in this day and age. It’s not a movie that answers the question as to whether fighting wars this way is right or not, but it gives moviegoers a window into the debate.