More noise than signal

Eye in the Sky

Republished from the show notes of my other site, Fuds on Film.

Drones: they’re increasingly what’s for dinner in modern warfare, where remote controlled flying missile platforms can mete out explosive vengeance without the need for any of that troublesome habeas corpus, due process, day in court nonsense that really does just get in the way of justice, while also being the basis of it.

Still, all’s fair in love and war, particularly if you love war enough to declare it on a noun such as terrorism, which means there’s also the delightful frisson of invading territory without all that messy “boots on the ground” garbage.

That’s where Eye in the Sky makes its entrance, the latest entry in the small but growing slice of cinema examining drone strikes. Colonel Katherine Powell (Helen Mirren) is in command of a joint U.S.A. and British mission, to provide visual reconnaissance to support a local Kenyan operation to capture a high value target who’s supposed to be meeting a local cell.

Things go sideways when the meeting venue changes to a house in a town entirely under militia control, making his capture infeasible. As soon as some young terrorist recruits appear and start donning an explosive vest, it becomes one of those “ticking timebomb” situations, forcing Powell to reclassify this as an assassination mission, or targeted kill as I believe they’re PR-ing it these days, much to drone pilot Steve Watts (Aaron Paul) dismay, given the collateral mayhem a Hellfire missile can cause in an urban area.

He pulls out the book on his superior, forcing Powell to confirm that they have legal authority on this strike which seems certain to cause the death of a young girl who is coincidentally selling flatbread from the back of a neighbouring house, on the outskirts of a market. This triggers a precession of people kicking the decision upstairs throughout the military and political channels, to the highest levels of the British and U.S.A. governments.

Meanwhile the delicate work of actually keeping tabs on the situation falls to undercover Kenyan agent Jama Farah (Barkhad Abdi), who must blag his way into the town and pilot a small surveillance drone locally, putting his life at risk if discovered and providing some real moments of tension as the diplomatic ping-pong continues.

There’s obviously been a few dramatic shortcuts taken to give the strike decision more of a moral quandary – it shouldn’t make a difference that the threat is to an innocent young girl from a family we’re explicitly shown rejecting the radical Islamic tenets of those who have taken over their home town, but of course it does. Likewise the imminent threat is another shortcut to force a quick decision, but both should really be irrelevant to the main question – is extra judicial assassination ever warranted?

It’s not my place to answer that for you, although I imagine you’ve picked up on my general feelings on the issue, but Eye in the Sky does a really good job of prompting you to answer the questions it’s raising without ever appearing to be heavy-handedly taking it’s own position. There’s reasonable arguments to be hand on both sides, at least the way they’re presented here.

The cast is uniformly excellent, not just Mirren, Abdi and Paul but all of the supporting cast which includes the likes of Iain Glen, Jeremy Northam, Phoebe Fox, and Alan Rickman in what’s sadly one his final roles. There’s a very well judged mix of tension caused by the situation and frustration to the point of laughability by the panicked responsibility dodging on display from the political side of the equation, which all adds up to one of the most compelling films about the War on Terror since The Hurt Locker.

Indeed, my only complaint is less with the film and more with the world, as it feels that disregarding whether you’re pro or anti drone strikes, this film unwittingly hints that they are all given this level of intense scrutiny. The actuality of the frequently indiscriminate nature of these strikes, the unashamedly massaged figures on the effectiveness of the targeting (such as the disgusting trick of arbitrarily determining that any of-age male killed in a drone strike is definitely a terrorist until proven otherwise), and the rate at which they’re occurring adds up to a process that’s plainly not overburdened with oversight.

But that’s not Eye in the Sky‘s fault, and indeed it’s to its credit that it raises these questions and provoke these thoughts, so it’s definitely one to put on you watch list.