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As war changes, so too does the movies, and as more and more tech is used to not just fight the enemies, but identify and track them, many films are shifting from full-scale bloody battlefield epics to localized intelligence thrillers. These stories include the use of drones, which have thoroughly changed the face of war. So now comes Eye in the Sky, a movie solely about the use of armed drones in the fight against terrorism, and while it turns a sharp eye on the politics of this new facet in combat, it comes up just short of giving it the punch it should have.
In Nairobi, Kenya, a number of top tier terrorists are gathered in a small neighborhood home, three of them internationally valued targets on governmental watch lists. They are preparing for a suicide attack, filling two vests and recording final video statements. Outside, the house is patrolled by armed members of their cause. What none of them know is that in the house is a beetle and above them a drone. That beetle is actually a tiny remote-controlled camera and the drone is stocked with Hellfire missiles. Watching the footage is UK military intelligence officer, Colonel Katherine Powell (Helen Mirren) who has command over two American pilots operating the drone from Las Vegas, led by 2nd Lieutenant Steve Watts (Aaron Paul).
The order is given to fire upon the home, but when a young girl selling bread sets up outside the house, Watts refuses to pull the trigger, as it were, until a reassessment of collateral damage is secured below the acceptable fifty-percent. This sends Powell to the on-site legal officer, and then to her superior, Lieutenant General Frank Benson (Alan Rickman) in London who is in conference with a collection of advisors and authoritative people. As the buck continually gets passed up for someone to make the decision, time ticks away as the terrorists prepare to move out. Is the life of one girl more valuable than the expected eighty or more they suspect the suicide bombers could take out with their own explosives? Someone must decide.
Directed by Gavin Hood, Eye in the Sky is much more a political statement than an action military film. In fact, most of the soldiers in the film spend it sitting in chairs far removed from the center of conflict. That is the point Hood makes most compellingly, that modern warfare is evolving so that those who do wear a uniform in this new conflict, will fight far from where their enemies lie. There’s no denying the conundrum this issue creates, and the premise is one of the most dialectic scenarios in recent film history, which Hood stages expertly. That’s not to say there aren’t some concerns.
Primarily, there are a number of questions about authenticity. While there’s no telling the advanced technology the government of the United States and the United Kingdom might secretly have already in operation in the field, the use of a life-sized, fully articulated, silent bug drone seems like something for the near future, but not now, though the movie itself pokes at the obvious issue of battery life. I’m all for some bending of the truth, but in a film that seems rigorous in its attempts to be faithful to current issues, it stretches plausibility. But what struck me as most false was the overly-dramatic investment of the characters in the girl herself (and an infuriating credit-sequence). Now, I’m not saying there shouldn’t be some personal emotion vested in the safety of an innocent child, and surely people who do this for a living would have better say, but the drone pilots especially are shown almost weeping with the choices they have to make, and it feels forced and manipulative.
While Hood tries to make a statement about the waffling of those in charge, it paints the two allies in broad strokes, with the American leaders coldly stipulating the need to attack, no matter the girl, while the Brits brow-beating each other with long-winded (and ever-so-polite) speeches that make them seem incapable of making the choice. That said, there are some terrific performances here, with Mirren quite convincing and Rickman’s presence adding great depth to the debate.
Eye in the Sky is a timely film and while it fails to give the subject the weight a well-made documentary would, it serves to generate some much-needed conversation. What should have been a smarter movie is instead, a well-acted drama with a nail-biting start and a disappointing finish.
Director: Gavin Hood
Writer: Guy Hibbert
Stars: Helen Mirren, Aaron Paul, Alan Rickman
Language: English, Somali