When it comes to drone warfare, it seems like such an easier way to fight an enemy without having to put “boots on the ground.” But like Snake Plissken said over and over in “Escape from L.A.,” the more things change, the more they stay the same. Just as in previous wars, there will always be much destruction and an inevitable number of civilian casualties. The question comes to this: is war worth it? Is it worth having all these civilian casualties while trying to take out the enemy? Now some might think these are easy questions to answer, but this is not the case at all, especially to those at the front line.
This is made clear in Gavin Hood’s intense thriller “Eye in the Sky.” It stars Helen Mirren as Colonel Katherine Powell who has been tracking a British citizen-turned-terrorist for six years and finally has her tracked down in Kenya. Thanks to local operative Jama Farah (“Captain Phillips’” Barkhad Abdi) and his nifty high-tech surveillance, she discovers this spy is quickly preparing along with others to carry out suicide attacks. As a result, what started as a mission of capture becomes a mission to kill terrorists, and Colonel Powell has drone pilot Steve Watts (Aaron Paul of “Breaking Bad”) target the safe house the terrorists are in and is prepared to take them out, but then a 9-year-old girl enters the kill zone to sell some loaves of bread, and she won’t leave until she sells them all. This quickly triggers an international dispute as the United States and British governments debate over whether or not to take action.
While most war movies enthrall viewers with bullets and bombs exploding constantly, “Eye in the Sky” leaves us in sweat-inducing suspense as we wonder if and when an explosion will go off at all. What’s great about Guy Hibbert’s screenplay is it never condescends to its characters or give us annoying ones who are out to make bone-headed decisions for their own benefit. Every reason each character gives for firing or not firing at the target makes perfect sense, and it adds to how difficult the question of attacking these terrorists with this little girl nearby is to answer. On one hand, stopping these terrorists will prevent the loss of many lives, but if the little girl is killed it will come back to aid the propaganda wars being fought against governments. Everyone is looking for a way to keep the blood off their hands, but no one gets off easy.
Watching this situation play out reminded me of a scene from “Blue Thunder.” This classic 1980’s movie is about a high-tech helicopter, and the characters see it do a demonstration of a strafing run where red dummies are terrorists and the white ones are civilians. In the course of shooting at the targets, all the red dummies are blown away as well as a few white ones. This leads the government official Fletcher to tell helicopter pilot Frank Murphy, “There’s one civilian dead for every ten terrorists. That’s an acceptable ratio.” To this Murphy replies, “Unless you’re one of the civilians.”
You almost want to laugh at the government officials who keep trying to contact their higher ups to get permission to obliterate the terrorists as it comes across as passing the buck. But whether or not there is an advantage to attacking or not attacking, there’s also how the rest of the population will interpret how their governments act. This is something governments can never fully control, and they are fully aware of the consequences of doing something and of doing nothing.
Gavin Hood has had a tough time in Hollywood ever since he won the Best Foreign Film Oscar for “Tsotsi.” His abduction thriller “Rendition” received a mixed reception, “X-Men Origins: Wolverine” proved to be a mess as it was undone by too much studio interference, and “Ender’s Game’s” chances of becoming a franchise of movies crashed as soon as it opened. But with “Eye in the Sky,” Hood is really in his element as he was once a soldier and has a clear understanding of the military’s responsibilities and the conflicts they endure. He’s also smart to not answer any of the questions the movie poses as he is not about to offer easy answers. Aside from the terrorists, there are no good or bad guys here, but instead, professionals trying to win a war against terrorism as well as the minds of the people.
Hood also shows how the drone pilots actually have it even harder than troops who see the action up close. They may be many miles away from their targets, but they can still see their targets up close and still have their finger on the trigger. At the movie’s press conference, Hood told reporters drone pilots have a higher rate of post-traumatic disorder than those troops who experienced armed combat up close. Having an actor like Aaron Paul playing the drone pilot gets this point across very well as we watch him suffer just as much as he did as Jesse Pinkman on “Breaking Bad.”
Mirren remains an impeccable actress, and she follows up her nasty turn as columnist Hedda Hopper in “Trumbo” with a much different character. Eager to stop another terrorist attack from happening, she undergoes tremendous stress while waiting for an answer from her commander. Mirren makes you feel her stress two-fold, and yet she never seems to break a sweat.
It’s also great to see Abdi here as he proves his Oscar-nominated performance in “Captain Phillips” was no fluke. His character is closest to the line of fire, and we watch as he does his best to do his work while under the prying eyes of fearsome soldiers. Abdi perfectly captures Jama’s desperation as he does what he can to save the little girl from a tragic fate, and he is riveting throughout.
The movie also contains the last onscreen performance from the late Alan Rickman who portrays Colonel Powell’s commanding officer, Lieutenant General Frank Benson. Rickman is as impeccable here as he has been in any other role he has played, and he will be deeply missed. He also has one of the movie’s most definitive lines which comes up towards the end, and he delivers it in a truly unforgettable way.
“Eye in the Sky” is one of those rare thrillers which thrills you just as much as it makes you think. The reality of drone warfare is hard to escape, and this is especially the case after watching this movie. As much as many of us want to leave life and death decisions up to others, Hood forces you to question what you would do in the same situation. You may not like the answers you come up with, but you can’t turn a blind eye to it forever.
By the way, in the case you were wondering, the Alan Parsons Project song of the same name is not featured in this movie. Bummer.