Warfare has evolved in the last thousand years, and even as recently as a few hundred years ago civilians would pack a picnic and sit on the edge of a battlefield to watch the carnage, rooting for their side like it was a gladiatorial combat or particularly aggressive sports match rather than combat to the death. World War II really marked the beginning of civilian targets being acceptable in combat, and by the Gulf War combatants weren’t even in combat, but behind the lines controlling weapons remotely. And now we have drones, surveillance and bomber planes that can be controlled from the other side of the globe.
That’s the starting point for the gripping, extraordinarily timely Eye in the Sky, a British film that revolves around the legal, ethical and political dilemmas surrounding drone warfare. In the film Colonel Katherine Powell (Helen Mirren) is in charge of a mission to capture high-level Al Shabaab extremists. When intel places them at a meeting house in Nairobi, she pulls in the Kenyan military and gains the assistance of the United States Air Force with live signal from a drone being flown by USAF pilot Steve Watts (Aaron Paul) from a base outside of Las Vegas, Nevada.
Courageous Kenyan field agent Jama Farah (Barkhad Abdi) infiltrates the enemy-controlled neighborhood where the terrorists’ house is located and sends in a tiny flying video bug that literally looks like a flying beetle into the house, having it perch on one of the rafters and offer a view of what’s transpiring with the meeting. Capture isn’t an option, but as the situation escalates, eliminating the threat via a drone-launched missile becomes an increasingly desirable alternative.
Finally, the identity of the leaders confirmed, Powell requests permission from her superior, Lieutenant General Frank Benson (Alan Rickman) to order a launch. But Benson is supervising with members of the British Government as witnesses, and they’re torn by legalities, the original mission profile and the political minefield of launch an attack and potentially killing or injuring civilians on the ground in Kenya. Do they go? Do they wait?
When Powell’s team does a damage assessment, however, the situation gets infinitely more complex: the bomb blast will more than likely kill a number of people in the nearby market, including Alia (Aisha Takow), a little girl who has unknowingly set up a stand by the road to sell bread.
And that’s where the film gets really fascinating, alarming and quite tense. Do they wait for her to leave, even at the risk of the extremists getting away and committing a likely mass murder? Or do they launch, take out the high profile targets and chalk up the life of one little girl to the casualties of war? And what of the political fall out?
Each person in the film has their own perspective and their own values, from the British Foreign Secretary (Iain Glen) to the various representatives of the British Government in the room with Lieutenant Benson, to the US Air Force personnel, notably including drone pilot Watts, who, with his co-pilot and data analyst Carrie Gershon (Phoebe Fox), seek to delay the firing of the missile — after all, it’ll be Watts’ finger that’ll actually pull the trigger — until everything’s clear.
But what if it isn’t clear? What if Alia is indeed going to have to be a casualty of the war against the terrorists?
This is a terrific, smart, politically-savvy thriller with a cast of well defined characters, each seeking to appear strong and vigilant while also doing their best to cover their butts in case things go south. It’s also eminently believable in the arguments and constant deferring of decisions as the buck passes back and forth between US and British government personnel, with the Kenyan army waiting patiently for a decision, and Farah keeps risking discovery as the man on the scene.
And in the middle of it all is the delightful young actress Aisha Takow, who is heartbreaking as the innocent girl who just wants to play with her hula hoop and reach for a better life with her doting parents who cluelessly live adjacent to a terrorist safe house. She’s in the middle of the storm as people from around the world monitor the evolving situation from the eye in the sky, utterly clueless as to any risk at all, let alone a risk from an earnest young Air Force pilot half a world away.
Eye in the Sky is one of the best films I’ve seen this year, and should be required watching for anyone who believes that drones make warfare easy, simple and antiseptic. As has always been the dilemma of warfare, though, it’s the people that matter, and the sacrifice of some for the many? That might not be the right equation after all.