As an historian who has spent his professional life studying conflict, I expect to be disappointed by war movies. Because I spend so much time writing about and providing media commentary on ISIS and al-Qaeda, I avoid films on terrorism all together, confident that I will find their often simplistic depictions annoying. I was, therefore, pleasantly surprised by "Eye in the Sky," a powerful drama that portrays realistically the nature of high-tech warfare while exploring its moral and legal complexities.
Writer Guy Hibbert and director Gavin Hood have produced a thriller guaranteed to keep viewers on the edges of their seats for its entire 102 minutes. At the center of the drama stands British Colonel Katherine Powell, brilliantly played by Helen Mirren. From her command post in London, Powell is directing an operation to capture a group of terrorists whom she has been tracking for years. As Kenyan Special Forces wait to move in on the Nairobi safe house where the four suspects are located, Powell views the situation from an "eye in the sky," a U.S. Reaper drone piloted by Lieutenant Steve Watts (Aaron Paul) from a base in Nevada. The operation unravels when the targets move to another house in a Somali slum controlled by militants, a location where the Kenyan forces cannot go without creating a major violent confrontation.
Powell argues vehemently that the mission should be changed from "capture" to "kill." Major General Frank Benson (Alan Rickman), who is viewing the situation from Whitehall with members of the British government, supports her, but the politicians balk. They question the legality of such a strike and worry about its political fallout. A bug-sized spy drone (U.S. military is currently testing one) flown into the house reveals that the terrorists are donning suicide vests in preparation for an imminent attack estimated to kill at least 80 people. After heated discussion and consultation with U.S. officials, the British minister approves the strike.
As the drone pilot prepares to unleash one of the Reaper's two Hellfire missiles, however, a young Somali girl sets up a table to sell bread right next to the target. Watts hesitates while Powell reminds him that many more children could die if the terrorists detonate the vests in a crowded setting. Exercising his prerogative as the pilot, Watts nonetheless demands a reassessment of the blast radius in hopes of giving the girl time to get away. The director and writer thus set the stage for the central dilemma of the film and the persistent moral quandary facing military personnel who conduct such operations: how does one weigh the innocent lives that will certainly be lost if the pilot fires his missile against the innocent lives that will probably be lost if he does not?
Most drone strikes are not nearly as complex as the one portrayed here, which involves tortuous discussion among military officers and cabinet secretaries from three countries. Authority to take out targets on a kill list is usually delegated in advance of attacks. Choosing the extreme case portrayed in "Eye in the Sky," though, allows the filmmakers to explore the legal, ethical and practical issues of targeted killings using remotely piloted aircraft in a scenario upon which they are writ large.
To their credit Hood and Hibbert avoid the temptation to offer either a feel-good ending or smug moral conclusions. Viewers will leave the theater with a deeper appreciation of the complex issues soldiers and politicians face in conducting high-tech warfare in the era of international terrorism. They should also appreciate the anguish faced by those who must make life and death decisions based upon incomplete, often ambiguous information, particularly the young drone pilots who, contrary to popular perceptions, suffer PTSD at twice the rate of those flying traditional aircraft.