Drone warfare sounds like a simple practice. Isolate your target, focus on it, and then attack. The benefit is one of distance; we can witness collateral damage without getting our hands dirty. Gavin Hood’s Eye In The Sky takes a similar approach in its examination of drone attacks; it’s effectively simple, but its focus on its target is unwavering. Last year, Andrew Niccol’s Good Kill tried (and failed) to grapple with the moral dilemmas facing those engaged in drone warfare. This time around, Gavin Hood’s film cuts out most superfluousness, and is more keen to raise questions than force trite answers on an audience it’s keen to make complicit.
The opening title card is followed by a quote from Aeschylus, “In war, truth is the first casualty.” Besides being a common misattribution, it’s disingenuous about the characters in the film; despite the ripe geopolitical setting and narrative, this isn’t mired in lies and corruption. Quite the opposite; it’s about people doing their best to swallow horrible truths. One has to wonder how often it happens (if at all) that a drone team comes face-to-face with decisions like the ones encountered in Eye In The Sky. When drone pilots Watts (Aaron Paul) and Gershon (Phoebe Fox) are confronted with all too human a face in their line of fire, politics, public protection and basic human decency clash in an admirably-calibrated race against time.
The drone pilots are based in the Nevada desert, about to execute a joint U.S.-U.K. operation in far-flung Nairobi under the London-based command of Colonel Powell. Powell is played by Helen Mirren, easily justifying stepping into a role originally written for a man, and not for the first time either. She lends an authoritarian grace to any role, and Colonel Powell demands it. As soon as you see her onscreen in her uniform, you buy the Colonel’s no-nonsense tack completely. The mere presence of a given actor does so much for a character, and Eye In The Sky is full of actors who sell their roles with little more than a look or a syllable. A notable example here is Alan Rickman, to whose memory the film is dedicated. As government liaison Lt. Gen. Benson, Rickman bears his uniform with the sighful disdain that became one of his trademarks. The sighs come readily, as Benson joins the defence secretary (Jeremy Northam), the Attorney General (Richard McCabe) and a legal counsel (Monica Dolan) to oversee the Nairobi raid. A meeting of high level al-Shabab leaders offers a prime opportunity to capture a British-born terrorist alive. As Western Europe recovers from another extremist attack, Eye In The Sky is well aware of its prescience, and it certainly can’t be accused of being flippant.
The film starts slowly, almost unremarkably. Character introductions paint a banal routine. Powell gets out of bed for work, as does Watts. Benson shops awkwardly for a gift for his daughter (Rickman’s trademark droll pronunciations offer much-needed levity throughout). Before all of those, however, we are introduced to little Alia (Aisha Takow). This photogenically adorable young girl puts a too-human face on the mission. The Al-Shabab meeting relocates to a house beside hers in a fundamentalist-controlled suburb, and when it becomes clear that the attendees are ready-to-go suicide bombers, an arrest is no longer an option. With the exception of Barkhad Abdi’s ground agent tailing the would-be bombers, everyone is watching with the perceived shield of distance. That shield can no longer save them from an unforeseen moral dilemma. Thus, the audience is cleverly placed into the character’s shoes; observation does not exclude you from participation.
Over the course of the film, Hood’s direction veers between unremarkable (The first act) and manipulative (The last five minutes, featuring overuse of dramatic slo-mo), but the tight, tense midsection brings out his best. Screenwriter Guy Hibbert can craft political drama (His credits include Northern Ireland-set Five Minutes of Heaven and Omagh), but it’s not at the expense of classic Hitchcockian suspense. As direction is sought from the Prime Minister and Foreign Minister, time ticks on, the bombers continue their preparations, and we’re never allowed to forget the little girl sat outside her house trying to sell bread. Eye In The Sky is a good old-fashioned race against time, and a fascinating military critique to boot. Ultimately, this sees the U.S. and British armies held up by one little girl. At one point, Benson says “Never tell a soldier that he does not know the cost of war.” The line is delivered with Rickman’s unmistakable gravity; besides showing how much we will miss him, it’s also Eye In The Sky in a nutshell. There’s a cost to these exploits, and most of us will be lucky enough not to have to pay for it ourselves.