Eye in The Sky is a film about the moral dilemmas about prosecuting a war or targeting specific individuals via drone aircraft that are capable of unleashing, with pinpoint accuracy, missiles from 22,000 feet to take out terrorists, and hopefully, limit what is known as collateral damage – meaning the civilian lives. that were inadvertently killed in the attack.
This is Helen Mirren who portrays Colonel Katherine Powell. While she may not be a modern version of Robert Duvall‘s Col. Kilgore from Apocalypse Now (1979), in her own way, she’s just as fierce.
These are the targets. They are near or very close to the top of the British Most Wanted list. Powell has been tracking Ayesha Al-Hady for six years without success. Al-Hady is a British national who was once known as Susan Danforth. Powell is working at a command center in Sussex.
Meanwhile, back in London, in a mahogany paneled conference room, sit Powell’s commander – one Lieutenant General Frank Benson played by Alan Rickman in his last film role, a top Minister, Britain’s version of our own Attorney General, a female member of Parliament, a couple of aides, and a Communications person.
For lack of better terms, we shall call Powell and her staff – the Operational Command for this mission, and the London-based people – The Legal, Compliance, Ethics, and Authorizing Group. But there’s more.
Since the targeted for capture are in a building in Nairobi, Kenya – there’s a sizable contingent of armed uniformed soldiers just a few klicks away. Those soldiers, and their commander, are under the command of Col. Powell.
Then there’s the covert staff, on the ground, literally steps away from the building where the terrorists are meeting. These operatives control remotely small flying cameras hidden in what appear to be a small surveillance humming bird, and a flying insect which will be used to get directly inside the building. Watch for Barkhad Abdi (from Captain Phillips) as the operator of the faux airborne beetle.
Here is the building where the terrorists are not only meeting, but are also arming up a couple of suicide bombers.
We are able to know this only because of the beetle camera.
Meanwhile, thousands of miles away, at the Creech Air Force base in the Nevada, sitting in an above-ground trailer are the pilot and second in command of the drone which is circling in the sky over Nairobi. The pilot, Steve Watts, is played by Aaron Paul.
Though he’s called the pilot, Watts sits in a container in Nevada, only a couple of steps above the ground.
That’s the drone that Watts is operating in the above image.
He takes the images, and will be ultimately tasked with releasing the weapons. That’s the Hellfire Missile attached under the wing of the drone.
Now despite years of tracking of Danforth by Powell, until now, there’s been no opportunity. Now they have her in their sights,
and with a full-fledged ground incursion by the field troops in Nairobi,
capture is imminent.
Only the equation gets jumbled. The beetle-cam now shows that the suicide bombers are being prepped. So the question now facing Powell, the London-based command, as well as the drone pilot – are not so simple. Can the rules of engagement be changed on the fly? Will the British High Command authorize a pre-emptive missile strike?
Can the numbers, the CDA (Collateral Damage Assessment) meet the requirements? Can these estimates – which include size of the missile payload, blast radius, proximity to the target by civilians, be re-run, and then re-run again (meaning fudged) to fall within the parameters.
But even then – the Minister in the London command center won’t sign off despite the assurances by the AG that this would be legally permitted. He says he has to ‘refer up’ meaning he won’t stick his neck out without having the protection of his higher-ups.
The female MP is against it as well. I came to see a capture, not a targeted assassination, she says.
So up the chain of command it goes. The on site Minister has to contact his boss, The Secretary of Foreign Affairs – and he happens to be in Beijing, at a ping-pong tournament. And he won’t sign off either – at least he won’t unless he has the okay from the Prime Minister – who is also overseas somewhere.
The Americans are pressing for a strike too. The Secretary of State gives his okay as does a highly ranked CIA officer. But now the pilot wants to delay as it can clearly be seen that a young girl is selling homemade bread at a stand that is right next to the targeted building.
The longer they delay – the likelihood is that the Danforth will leave the building and they will miss the opportunity.
Such is the tale of Eye In the Sky. War is indeed a quagmire. There are no easy solutions. The terrorists can lose in the propaganda war if they succeed with another bomb or bombs being detonated. Of course, despite the condemnation from the rest of the civilized world, the terrorists will trumpet that they were able to succeed, and so they are in the right.
On the British side of this argument, If they allow the suicide bombers to leave the building, and go off to do their deadly tasks, the loss of life will be substantial. And how will the British come off after word gets out that they knew the suicide bombings were imminent.
Yet, if they fire the missile, and civilian casualties happen, this will be a victory for the terrorists in the war of words that will surely come in the aftermath.
Yes, war is messy.
What makes this a remarkable film is that we know within minutes what is at stake. Capturing people that sit atop the most wanted list is the stuff dreams are made of in this world of geo-politics, the war on terror, and acting correctly as the world goes about its own business.
Going in we know we are in for an edge-of-your-seat thriller. So the real question for screen-writer Guy Hibbert and Director Gavin Hood is how do you maintain the stress, can you amp up to a white-knuckle moment only to back away when some politico says, I’ll have to refer up.
In my view, they achieved their goal which is to maintain suspense, stress, and tension – in all their myriad forms throughout. Yes, there are some definite eye-roll moments – like the Foreign Secretary playing ping-pong in Beijing while Col. Powell fumes in Sussex. Or when the PM gets the runs or some form of Bali Belly and we watch as he sits on a toilet having to make key decisions.
And to achieve the goal, Hibbert and Hood needed a top flight cast to say the words beyond merely just effectively. They needed to show the complexity of prosecuting the war as well as the difficulties in the decision-making processes. And most importantly, they needed to present a film and the sides of the arguments WITHOUT lapsing into jingosim, or soft-pedaling the implacable foe, or making the often gutless politicos or the pedal-to-the-metal military figures come off as caricatures or buffoons.
I’m highly recommending the film and suggest that if you do see it, you will be rewarded by fine performances, excellent philosophical discourse, plenty of action, and high tension.
Four point five is the rating.
Here is your trailer: