Eye in the Sky

March 17, 2016
Aaron Paul in 'Eye in the Sky' (2015)
Aaron Paul in 'Eye in the Sky' (2015)

“Something inherent in the necessities of successful action,’ wrote Joseph Conrad in Nostromo,’ carried with it the moral degradation of the idea.” He could be describing the contemporary ‘war on terror’, in which the efficient use of drones makes a mockery of the idea of the nobility of armed conflict.

There’s nothing romantic about sending a robot jet to deal death from the sky, but that’s OK if winning is all that counts. The Edwardians were perhaps the last generation to view war as a superior form of sport. Nowadays it is simply a matter of getting them before they get you. Is it a problem that we are growing more distant from the actualities of violence and suffering? Treating the entire thing like a video game?

When so many Americans are cheering on the triumphalist rhetoric of Donald Trump one can only feel that the nation’s collective grasp on reality is growing pretty thin.

Perhaps a few of those triumphalists will wander into Eye in the Sky, thinking it is another ‘shoot ‘em up’ spectacular. But despite the occasional explosion, and a sense of suspense that builds to nail-biting proportions, director, Gavin Hood, has given us a film that restores a human dimension to the legitimised violence of the Allied drone strike.

Eye in the Sky gets under the surface of that notorious euphemism, ‘collateral damage’, showing how strategic decisions also entail difficult moral choices. It asks: “Is the chance to take out a group of dangerous terrorists worth an innocent human life?” This question rarely gets asked in a typical action film. One wonders if it gets asked very often in airforce control rooms, where Wikileaks has revealed operators whooping and laughing when a strike is made.

For the purposes of this movie we have to imagine that both the US and British forces are full of empathetic people who feel a certain reluctance about blowing up civilians. If cynicism can be left at the cinema door there is a lot to be gained from this tense, morally complex thriller.

Hood takes pains to establish the distance that exists between the agents of destruction and their potential victims. We begin with Lt. Colonel Katherine Powell (Helen Mirren) leaving her cottage in the Sussex countryside and making her way to a military base where technicians are tracking the movements of known terrorists in Kenya.

When a sighting is confirmed the information is flicked over to an meeting of politicians and bureaucrats in Whitehall, chaired by Lt. General Frank Benson (the late Alan Rickmans, in his final on-screen role), who has spent the morning buying a doll for his granddaughter.

The other players are the Americans at a camp in Nevada, who control the drones used in pinpoint airstrikes. We watch pilot Steve Watts (Aaron Paul) leave his bed and make his way to the base before sitting down in the operator’s chair. The message couldn’t be clearer: “It’s all in a day’s work.”

On the other side of the planet a group of terrorist leaders have holed up in a busy part of Nairobi, where they are grooming two suicide bombers. But as the US operators prepare to strike, a little girl (Aisha Takow) sets up a bread stall next to the wall of the terrorists’ compound.

Do the attackers carry on regardless, reasoning that it’s worth taking one life to prevent the deaths of many others? That train of thought is pursued by the American top brass, but the British pollies agonise over the situation. Benson tries to talk them around, but no-one wants to give the OK. The prevailing thought is that the Allies need to be better people than the unscrupulous killers they are stalking, but the reality of a drone strike provides little scope for heroic poses.

Barkhad Ali, who played the pirate in Captain Phillips, acts as an agent for Allied intelligence, who gets close to the terrorist headquarters, and releases a small robotic “bee” that can enter the building and beam back pictures. It will make you suspicious of every fly that sits perched on the lounge room wall.

Guy Hibbert’s script corrals a lot of talk and prevarication into a very tense package. Each time the decision is “referred up” to a more senior politician, we inwardly groan. Like all good writers, Hibbert knows that drama is enhanced by a touch of black humour. When the call goes out: ‘To strike or not to strike?’ the British Foreign Secretary can’t come to the phone because he is locked in the bathroom after eating something disagreeable at a foreign arms fair. His American counterpart is playing ping pong in China, and seems incredulous that anyone should need ask such a dumb question.

One wonders if there is any truth to this portrait of the Americans as Gung-ho bombers, and the British as terminal worriers, tortured by their consciences and the possibility of bad publicity. (Although it’s hard to say which they dread most.)

As the director is a South African he can’t be considered a partisan of either side. One could, however, accuse him of manipulating our emotions by dwelling on the cute little girl in the firing line. It’s an old routine but it remains horribly effective.

Eye in the Sky
Directed by Gavin Hood
Written by Guy Hibbert
Starring Helen Mirren, Alan Rickman, Aaron Paul, Barkhad Abdi, Aisha Takow, Jeremy Northam, Iain Glen, Phoebe Fox, Monica Dolan
UK, rated M, 102 mins

Published in the Australian Financial Review, Saturday 19th March, 2016.