Movie Review: Eye in the Sky
Director: Gavin Hood
Reviewed: 2 May 2016
The Sunday Houston Chronicle front page detailed punishments meted out to the entire military chain-of-command that led to the deadly bombing of a Doctors Without Borders camp in the Middle East. The nature of modern warfare is sometimes remote, mechanized, and brutally efficient, yet mistakes are still frequently made that cost innocent people their lives and undermine missions.
That's the thorny political and moral landscape of Gavin Hood's tense, taut Eye in the Sky, a cerebral telling of a possible drone attack in Kenya and its riveting political and personal consequences. Hood edits together the Mission Commander, Col. Powell (Helen Mirren) leading her team in a bunker in England, the British government officials huddled in an office in Parliament, and the American forces outside of Las Vegas who are coordinating the drones, including remote pilot Steve Watts (Aaron Paul). There are forces on the ground in Kenya and intelligence indicating that a high-level meeting of terrorists is occurring at a certain location. When the spying catches sight of the faces involved and the loading of explosives into vests, the mission becomes an urgent rush to satisfy the necessary protocols for dropping a bomb on these people before they leave the home. A ticking clock provides the necessary suspense as a team on the ground does its best to gather more information led by Jama Fara (Barkhad Abdi). It then becomes a game of hurry up and wait.
Questions of legality abound, especially involving the killing of American and British citizens who have joined the movement and are in a sovereign country. To military man, Lt. General Frank Benson (Alan Rickman), the criteria is met, but to the Minister, Brian Woodale (Jeremy Northam), the need to quibble, defer, and refer up to higher chains of command initially reaches a maddening level. But Hood is playing a much longer game here, and he carefully and methodically sets up these questions as vital to the heart of the work these countries do, with more and more unraveling leading to culpability and then moral responsibility when the blast radius takes into account civilians that the drone has been silently watching. Moral equivalency is heightened, and the film takes on a stressful amount of tension.
There are no easy answers in Eye in the Sky. To do good, must one engage in evil? When is the cost of doing something justified even with loss of innocent life? By killing innocents, do we become evil like the evil we are trying to stop? And, how do actions haunt the individuals most responsible for them? Executing policy on a national level involves decisions that end lives. Executing policy on the micro-level means someone has to aim the target, someone has to press the button, someone has to search the rubble for confirmation. Hood's movie is by no means enjoyable, but it is a necessary and vital examination of the war on terror's tactics and the human cost of war waged in this way. Powerful and sobering.