War is hell. This is a constant truth. Drones are merely the freshest form this hell takes, innovation that serves to remove combat decisions from their immediate consequences by replacing a pull of a trigger with the click of a button. And yet it also enhances and broadens ethical questions and feelings of culpability when the actions of these flying death machines are the result of a large number of personnel debating, justifying, and ultimately enacting this new art of war. Eye in the Sky is not the first film to take drone warfare as its subject, but it’s the most effective and sustained look at the matter to date. This is a film clearly, cleverly committed to considering the methods and morality of modern war from several vantage points, watching as actions are slowly decided upon as the direct results of difficult questions. Is it reasonable to do a terrible thing to prevent something worse? Perhaps. But the variables aren’t so simple or easily predictable.
Director Gavin Hood, drawn to scenarios where means only justify the ends through cold calculation or strategic ignorance (from his War-on-Terror muckraker Rendition, to glum sci-fi Ender’s Game, and even the best moments of his studio-muddled X-Men Origins: Wolverine), here works with screenwriter Guy Hibbert to crisply and quickly focus on one dramatic moment with expertly sustained tension. There’s a house in Nairobi where high-value targets will be meeting new recruits. From a command center in England, a determined colonel (Helen Mirren) is watching a live-feed from the drone over the targets’ location. She’s sharing this with her commanding officer (Alan Rickman), who is huddled behind closed doors in London with a legal team. They’re all triangulating resources with Kenyan military, which has an operative (Barkhad Abdi) in the field. The drone itself is on loan from the United States Air Force, technicians (Aaron Paul and Phoebe Fox) flying it from Las Vegas, data processed from a cubicle in Hawaii.
The Eye in the Sky is the vehicle for much dramatic hand wringing as facts on the ground change and intelligence flows up and down the chain of command with every new wrinkle. By narrowing the scope of the film to one particular flashpoint, it grounds its ethical and moral questions in fine specificity. It’s not tackling the entire idea of drone warfare, instead merely finding a story to illustrate the structure by which it’s executed, and the limitations of this process. It’s a productive lens. We see a variety of military and political figures drawn into the decision-making as the drone spies suicide vests being assembled – a clear target for a pre-emptive strike – and innocent, blameless civilians walking past the house – a clear reason to hold off on raining destruction from the sky. There’s a mixture of wariness and weariness, urgency and caution to the proceedings, as tension slowly grows, escalating with thoughts of impending tragedy of one kind or another.
It’s a film of grinding workmanlike competency in subject and approach. Cinematographer Haris Zambarloukos (Jack Ryan) uses simple shooting, which is cut together by editor Megan Gill (The Call) with tick-tock precision. The excellent cast inhabits blank professionals, flashes of personality tamped down by the severity of the events they’re confronting. They’re driven to do what they see is best for their jobs and countries, debating courses of action in clipped, terse, and tense exchanges. There’s a literal ticking bomb on the screens before them. The gravity of making the wrong call weighs heavily. But the movie never picks sides, allowing those outlining an argument for action and those advocating restraint to make good points. Yet a decision must be made. Hood blends simple dialogues with eerie aerial shots, floating from a drone’s-eye view over its targets. The source of so much conflict, the images it captures are of people simply going through their days, unaware their lives hang in the balance, their survival solely in the hands of military and diplomatic officials thousands of miles away.
There’s bleakly funny exasperation as the bureaucracy pulls ever more suits into the conversation, serious people with differing ideas and ideals nonetheless joined in figuring out how best to minimize the potential for explosions on the other side of the world. This disconnect is enhanced by the differences between Mirren and Rickman, full of gravitas as they sit in their chairs, and Paul, eye on the screen with his hand on the trigger, and Abdi, who sits across the street from the target warily sizing up the facts before him. There are varying levels of culpability, of engagement, all drawn together in an impressive and frightening web of surveillance, with data representing real human lives ping-ponging around a dozen monitors across every continent. Smartly done, Hood’s restraint makes the film all the more powerful and compelling, We don’t know much about these characters, and the filmmaking’s simplicity could probably do with a bit more deft density, but the unfussy declaration of its characters’ core humanity makes for a far more nuanced and troubling outcome. There are no easy answers and no good actions, only hard-fought reactions inevitably resulting in bad outcomes no matter what.