Drone warfare has been a hot button issues in international politics and in the conducting of operations abroad for quite a few years now. There are definite merits and definite criticisms for and against the program. As usual, there have been a few films in recent years that have incorporated drone strikes into their storyline, but also a few films that have dealt specifically with the morality of drone strikes. I have not seen any of them, but I feel confident in saying that Eye In The Sky is likely the best treatment of the subject matter yet and is one of the best thrillers of 2016.
The film spans the globe, beginning in the UK where Colonel Katherine Powell (Helen Mirren) is coordinating an operation to capture Islamist extremists operating in Nairobi, Kenya, one of whom is a British national who has been indoctrinated. Providing the namesake eye in the sky is a US drone operated out of Nevada by USAF pilots Steve Watts (Aaron Paul) and Carrie Gershon (Phoebe Fox). On the ground is a military unit awaiting word to engage and take the suspects alive. They also have eyes on the ground; among them, Jama Farah (Barkhad Abdi), who is gathering ground intel with video bugs, bug-sized drones with video capability. Back in London is Lieutenant General Frank Benson (Alan Rickman), who is supervising the overall mission from a situation room with a few members of the government (Jeremy Northam, Richard McCabe, Kim Engelbrecht) there to oversee it. Things take a drastic turn when the operation goes from “capture” to “kill” in a residential area and is then further complicated by the presence of a young girl named Alia (Aisha Takow) who sets up shop outside of the compound to sell bread that her mom has made.
The best thrillers, in particular ones that deal with international politics or a possible military standoff or crisis, often have their foundation in an ambiguous area where the law or the rules of engagement come into conflict with the specific situation; when the application of what people are trained to do is thrown into doubt by the reality they are faced with (Crimson Tide comes to mind). This foundation for a conflict, in the right hands, creates a wonderful tension for the viewer. Director Gavin Hood has created a film that is all about this tension. It does not feature a lot of action as most of the acting from majority of the actors involved is reacting to the changing circumstances, what they are witnessing, or what they are being asked to do. In place of the action are a lot of conversations about what is the right course of action, what is legal in the eyes of the government, and who has the authority to authorize what action should be taken. When decision in the situation room in London cannot be reached, it is sent up to the British Foreign Secretary (Iain Glen) who is in Singapore. Later, the US Secretary of State, who is on a trip in Beijing, is asked for his input, and it becomes clear that the threshold for acceptable action from a legal and political viewpoint is very different from country to country.
The film further wrings tension out of nearly every interaction between the characters in their conversations about what to do, what is protocol, and not just what is legal but what is ethical. The screen is practically dripping with tension created by everyone having to act within a limited window of opportunity in order to potentially avert a crisis as well as try to buy time to save this girl’s life and get her out of harms way while still accomplishing the mission. The dependency upon the decision-making process and the necessary conversations helps to build the tension, because there is no relief or outlet for any of it. Instead, the film continues to turn the screws and layer on the stakes and allow the clock to tick and the pressure to mount, knowing something or someone will ultimately crack, and to what degree any collateral damage can be minimized.
The acting required to make a film like this work is far different that an action thriller, and everyone involved is up to the task. Mirren is her usually terrific self. Her Col. Powell has been working toward this moment for six years, and the desperation she displays as things threaten to spiral beyond her careful planning is palpable. Rickman, in one of his last roles, gives maybe on his best performances and the general who is overseeing it all, shares the concerns and urgency to act of Col. Powell, and he must contend directly with the civilian oversight of the government officials in the room with him, who were there expressly to witness a capture. In Nevada, Watts and Gershon must wrestle with the potential consequences and emotional weight of pulling the trigger on a missile strike with a civilian visibly in the blast radius, and a kid no less. It’s also nice to see Academy Awared Nominee Barkhad Abdi getting work post-Captain Phillips.
Eye In The Sky is one of those thrillers that is well-told, well-acted, and well-made while also being timely, intelligent in its message. It is unflinching and uncompromising in its depictions of a difficult scenario that shines a light on a big topic of debate. Most importantly, it is not heavy-handed in its approach to the matter of drone warfare. I think it clearly comes down on a specific side of the debate, but it also acknowledges the validity of points on both sides of the issue, as well as dealing with the cost of the program, not just in the potential loss of life but the also in the emotional toll it takes on the people involved in these operations and the almost impossible task of valuing the lives of many against the lives of a few or one, specifically.
Rating 4 out of 5 stars