Drone warfare is one of the hottest buttons in today’s political discourse, so it’s no surprise that we’ve started seeing films on the topic get more and more high-profile. Last year, Andrew Niccols’ Good Kill examined the psychological impact of this kind of combat on the drones’ pilots, and now Gavin Hood’s Eye in the Sky takes a look at the full political and military scope of this controversial technology. Playing out almost in real time, Hood’s film travels across four continents and follows the commanders, soldiers, and victims to give an insight into the decisions that surround drone strikes and their consequences after a missile is fired.
Before we see any military or political personnel, Hood introduces to the family living right next door to the Al-Shabab safehouse that is the drone mission’s target. Debates on this topic can get lost in sterile statistics and legal technicalities, so this humanisation is important, and sets up what will be the film’s key conflict. The safehouse contains three high value targets and two possible suicide bombers, so British colonel Katherine Powell (Helen Mirren) and General Frank Benson (Alan Rickman) want to wipe it off the face of the earth as soon as possible. The drone’s pilot Steve Watts (Aaron Paul), on the other hand, is reluctant, with the young daughter of the family selling bread inside the blast radius of the missile.
What’s most impressive about Eye in the Sky is the way in which it never lets its audience rest on a decision. During a cabinet meeting with politicians who are more concerned with image than real results, you can’t wait for Powell and Benson to get the green light, but as soon as the action moves to the room in which the pilots are actually making the shot, the fear of collateral damage becomes far more palpable. Neither drone operator has ever carried out a kill mission, and Aaron Paul and Phoebe Fox (playing the assistant pilot) both capture well the nauseous angst of being asked to kill in cold blood.
However, this back and forth can also, on occasion, be relatively frustrating, forcing the film to repeat certain beats to the point of tiredness. It’s an effective statement on the ridiculous bureaucracy of war, but not always particularly fun to watch. Thankfully, Hood and writer Guy Hibbert have a great grasp of how best to ratchet up tension, especially when following the Kenyans’ local intelligence agent Jama Farah (Captain Phillips’ Barkhad Abdi) on the ground.
A sequence in which Jama must infiltrate the safehouse with a small drone while posing as a trader is absolutely riveting, and kicks off an incredibly tense final act. This last third of the film has some wobbles, but manages to right itself in time for a satisfying yet troubling ending. Eye in the Sky does not shy away from the horrors of war, from gruesome explosions to the shady machinations with which officers attempt to authorise drone strikes. At points it is hard to believe that so much thought and anguish actually goes into launching a strike, but Hibbert’s script plays with this idea to illustrate key differences in the American and British approach to aggressive foreign policy.
Helen Mirren is on slightly more muted form than usual as Powell, which works very well for this seasoned military veteran. Almost always in control, and quietly furious whenever she isn’t, it’s a subtly commanding performance in which Mirren easily convinces as someone who has been hardened by years of confusing and fruitless conflict. Eye in the Sky is also the last live-action appearance of the tragically departed Alan Rickman, who manages to pack both world-weariness and arch comedy in his portrayal of General Benson. As he departs the war room to give his granddaughter her birthday present at the film’s very end after a great final line, the weight of the loss of his talent becomes very clear.
Giving the increasing prominence of drones in western armies, they are swiftly becoming a matter about which it is difficult to be neutral. Whether you believe they are cowardly, necessary, illegal, or just a considerable advantage in a fight, Eye in the Sky will force you to reassess your opinions, even if its own lack of answers means that it probably won’t change many people’s minds outright. An unshowy cast lead an important debate film that never forgets the human cost of its discussions and proves a fine closing example of the inimitable screen presence of Alan Rickman.