By JOE AUCIELLO
“Eye in the Sky,” (2016), a film directed by Gavin Hood, written by Guy Hibbert, with Helen Mirren and Alan Rickman.
The arc of the suspense story is familiar enough. Begin the tale in normal times, introduce a disruptive element whose threat deepens until it is ultimately destroyed, and conclude with a return to normalcy.
To this successful formula, “Eye in the Sky” adds a sheen of high seriousness by basing the film’s conflict on a moral question fraught with a contemporary urgency. In the war against terrorism, what is the value of a single human life—especially when that life belongs to an innocent, young girl?
To sweeten the question, know that this child—happiest when playing with her hula-hoop—is no terrorist herself and shows no inclination of ever becoming one. An early scene reveals her reluctant submission to sharia law and dislike of the Muslim extremists who would prohibit her free-spirited play. Foreigner she may be, but at bottom, she’s just like us. Hers, therefore, is a life that matters.
The story begins with Colonel Katherine Powell (Helen Mirren), a British officer in command of an intelligence unit, using surveillance drones to track an Islamic terrorist organization in Kenya. One of their leaders is a British national, who thus far has been an elusive target.
With the assistance of these U.S. Air Force drones and agents on the ground, the terrorists and their leaders have been detected and followed to a safe-house. A Kenyan military unit is standing by to arrest the group, until an undercover agent discovers that several young men are being outfitted with bombs hidden in suicide vests. The British-American mission is thus changed from “capture” to “kill,” which requires Col. Powell to obtain legal authorization.
Here the story and setting shift from military bunkers to government offices, back and forth, in a maddening game of political hot-potato, as each political official tries to avoid taking responsibility for a decision that, should it backfire, would most certainly result in career-ending blame. It’s the one “death” not to be risked.
Intensifying the legal and moral dilemma is the appearance next to the “kill site” of a young Kenyan girl of elementary-school age. She arrives to sell the bread her mother bakes and sets up a make-shift stand by the road-side. The presence of an innocent civilian could possibly abort the attack—a possibility the military officers are desperate to avoid. The American drone-operator, in fact, refuses to launch the Hellfire missiles on Col. Powell’s order and insists that appropriate procedures be followed and verified, despite the growing likelihood of a terrorist suicide bombing that would murder scores of people.
Therefore, given the imminent threat, Col. Powell decides to go around the military regulations that would protect noncombatants. She issues a command-by-suggestion to one of her officers to create the computer model that will “prove” the relative safety of the child when the bombs rain down. Permission is thus granted, and the airstrike is launched, with predictable results.
“Eye in the Sky” is an excellent film of its type. Tautly written, fast-paced, well acted and directed, the movie has earned critical and financial success. The flaws of the film, which become apparent with a slight degree of thought, are actually no obstacle to its popularity. Popcorn and propaganda mix well.
Of course, the characters must be simplified and the plot streamlined, but most importantly of all, the Americans and British—at least their military—must be favorably portrayed. Criticism is largely confined to government officials, who provide a convenient and enjoyable foil.
Begin with Dame Helen Mirren, who plays the colonel in combat camouflage. She is an appealing contrast to the “testosterone-deprived” civilian politicians. As the latter bunch dicker and dither, her job is to bark, “We have to strike now!” with ever-increasing degrees of urgency.
Veteran actor Jeremy Northam, in the role of Defense Minister, shows that in his acting school days he surely earned top grades in the Spineless Bureaucrat and Sniveling Coward classes. The late Alan Rickman, as a character who need only be named “General,” is largely limited to expressions of respectful exasperation with the politicians and government officials, all apparently graduates of the Neville Chamberlain School of Diplomacy.
While General is not overly troubled about blowing a little girl to pieces, the audience knows nonetheless that he is a good and decent man because, before going to work and urging the death of an innocent, he frets about the right toy to buy for a grandchild.
From such a solid moral foundation, “General” delivers the film’s indecent applause line, the one forbidding civilians from faulting the military since only soldiers “know the cost of war.” The government official who receives this tongue-lashing makes no reply, and silence signifies the truth of the statement. It is also a cue to the public. Here, a bit of dialogue resolves the tragedy in the story, which the audience has been admonished to accept without a contrary word.
But there is every reason to question the military’s justification of anything it does. The soldiers and “cost of war” line is the kind of contrived falsehood that George Orwell identified as “political language,” that is, a statement “designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind.”
Only soldiers know the terrible price of war? Unspoken in this simple-minded platitude is the presumption that the fierce, unforgiving urgency of combat creates the circumstances that requires and even excuses any instance of indiscriminate killing. It’s the standard-issue defense of war crimes and atrocities. Of course, it is also a point that must not be mentioned, much less acknowledged.
Unacknowledged too is the consideration that hardship and poverty are at the center of this movie, directly linking the soldier who fires the drone missile to the young girl who is killed by it. He’s sitting in a desert bunker, sweating, with a reluctant finger on the trigger, because, after college, jobs were scarce, and the Air Force offered four years of a secure income. The girl could have left the target site after selling her wares, but a plot twist allows her to re-sell them, and poverty compels her to stay. Financial need drives both these characters, damaging the psyche of one and destroying the body of the other—a word chosen for all of its connotations.
This is the story within the movie that the audience will not notice, much less consider. Will the film compel many of its viewers to ask about the estimated number of civilian deaths resulting from drone air strikes? Not likely. Will many viewers notice that while the “Eye in the Sky” centers on the possible risk to one civilian, real-life scenarios frequently involve multiple victims? Again, not likely.
To ask these kinds of questions is to spoil the fun. Maybe soldiers know the cost of war, but movies are made to guarantee that audiences know the pleasure of it.
After the film credits roll, viewers of the movie will later that evening become viewers of television news. They will eventually see reports—if not one night, then another—of the U.S. military’s accidentally blowing up a Doctors Without Borders hospital in Afghanistan, bombing a wedding party in Yemen, or Air Force gunships launching drone strikes that shred the flesh of dusky-skinned people in various parts of the world.
“Eye in the Sky” will reassure these viewers that every measure possible to secure civilian safety was considered and taken, even at risk to the lives of U.S. soldiers. Surely, the federal government and its armed forces could do no less. After all, they’re the good guys.