The rules of war have never exactly been cut and dried, and the introduction of modern drone technology has only hastened to make the situation yet more ragged and unclear. Eye in the Sky isn’t the first attempt to tackle the ethical complications created by this new age of warfare (see Homeland seasons one and four as just one example) but it is perhaps the most successful, managing to focus the audience’s attention for almost an hour and a half on the impossible decisions which have to be made by those people who find themselves in such situations as these.
The film throws together the multitude of individuals who are involved in the decision-making processes required for military action in a drone-centric world, and the legal, political and ethical hoops which must be jumped through. With a wide range of perspectives involved in such discussions, we the audience are invited to make up our own minds about what the correct course of action would be, and to come up with our own decisions in the same short timespans which the characters have. Being a British film, there is also the obligatory usage of soft satire, verging on black humour at times, with comical situations immediately juxtaposed with life-and-death scenarios, forcing us into some painfully powerful intellectual somersaults in the process.
As the film progresses, and key decisions are passed along by one person after another, it repeatedly ends up being junior members of the military or political landscape who find themselves wrestling with their own consciences, and how they fit with the instructions being handed down by their superiors. While individuals within military organisations have undoubtedly faced this dilemma since the beginning of time, the introduction of drones, and therefore the removal of any real arguments surrounding self-defence, continues to make these decisions ever-harder to answer in a way which feels comfortable for anyone at all.
If there’s any one group which comes out of the film completely negatively, it’s politicians in general, portrayed as bumbling, indecisive, and with an eye always on political ramifications rather than the issue at hand. Nevertheless, it is they who consider it necessary to discuss the ‘propaganda war’, as it’s put, which not just drones but any such Western military action can have on wider populations, both at home and abroad. Furthermore, they are the individuals most obsessed with the importance of nationalities, with the existence of both British and American passports amongst the group of Somalis who make up Al-Shabaab morphing into an entirely separate debate beyond the ethical debate surrounding drones themselves, as though British or American lives are significantly different in terms of worth than any others.
The locations in which the film is set are highly significant, not least the usage of Nairobi, Kenya, as the place where the key events occur. It’s something of a raw deal for the Kenyans, with their capital depicted as being like Baghdad or similarly terror-riddled cities. The fact that Al-Shabaab may actually operate out of the suburb of Eastleigh may be true, but little is done to make it clear that this is in reality a particularly unruly part of Nairobi, or that events such as the 2013 Westgate Mall attack are not everyday occurrences. It contrasts particularly powerfully with the London-based Permanent Joint Headquarters (PJHQ) and Whitehall facilities from which the British co-ordinate their actions, complete with ‘tea and biscuits’ and other comforts, or the American control room in Las Vegas, while others face the much more old-fashioned warfare of guns and explosives. We also get to explore the power relationships between the US and the UK, and the UK and Kenya, both of which depict a senior and a junior partner simultaneously working together whilst also jostling for position. Despite their supposedly equal status, there is a clear line of command from the top to the bottom of this hierarchy, one which betrays the historical and economic ties between the different nations.
Helen Mirren is an engaging, strong, and highly interesting casting choice for Colonel Katherine Powell, the closest the film comes to a protagonist. It would have been so easy to lazily have a chisel-jawed male lead instead, like so many films before this one, but Mirren acts the role to perfection. There is something of a post-Judi Dench-as-M quality about her character’s persona, and her toughness and fortitude throughout, whether you agree with her views or not, are certainly to be applauded. The late Alan Rickman, in one of his final roles, is the perfect compliment. His withering glances and exasperated tones directed at the political drama queens he finds himself working with turns what could have been a quite forgettable role into a masterpiece.
The film is essentially a 21st century version of the infamous ‘trolley problem’, and one which is executed with perfection. So many war films , both contemporary and classic, paint a clear divide between the forces of good and evil, with so called ‘collateral damage’ merely a part of the background scenery. Eye in the Sky brings these individuals centre stage, for once forcing deep ethical decisions upon an everyday cinema-going audience, and then forcing them to watch the inevitably tragic impacts of such decisions, whatever they may be.