Eye in the Sky is technically about one singular drone attack in Kenya carried out during a joint mission between England and the United States, but the movie is so much more than that.
It's a conversation piece on the ethical price of war, the stress waged upon the minds and bodies of guilt-ridden soldiers and the question of whether integrity can go hand-in-hand with new drone technology. Following six different groups over the course of the film, director Gavin Hood chooses to use the idea of a drone to explore the state of conflict in war ravaged places, presenting different opinions from each side of the debate that doesn't feel like a forced lecture.
Eye in the Sky is a tense look into the behind-the-scenes decisions that occur while an attack is being carried out. It's the type of film that will reinvigorate the debate on drone war and effect of new weaponry, but it's also highly entertaining, and beyond all else, a well-made movie.
The mission starts off routinely: the British intelligence force has tracked down two of the most wanted terrorists in Africa and would like to carry out a drone strike to effectively kill them. They've worked on attaining the positive IDs of the former British citizens turned Islamist fundamentalists, and are ready to attack when a couple of concerns come up. This is where the movie starts to find itself — and get interesting.
The biggest question that arises, and one of the most important themes from a political standpoint, is how many innocent lives are worth taking to ensure that these terrorists are killed?
Mirren's character, Colonel Katherine Powell, argues that considering these are two of the most dangerous people in the world: The risk of killing a couple of innocent Kenyans, including a young Kenyan girl, was more than worth it.
But while she feels this way, there's a flurry of argument from the British government agency in charge of overseeing the mission. Rickman's character, Lt. General Frank Benson, agrees with Powell, but he can also see the government's point: if they take innocent Kenyan lives, they lose the trust of the British people and they become the monsters behind another botched drone attack.
The question that is posed over and over again isn't whether the attack is warranted, that much has already proven to be true. The real question is a public relations one: are the lives of two terrorists worth losing the public's support on the war on terror?
How many innocent lives are worth taking to ensure that these terrorists are killed?
Things become even more complicated when they learn that the house the terrorists have gathered in is full of explosives that the group plans to use to carry out a large scale attack in a public setting.
Are 100 lives worth saving just to end up looking like the bad guy? 200 lives? It's the question that gets thrown around the briefing table more often than not, and instead of anybody taking any form of action, the request for permission to attack just moves up the ladder, eventually hitting the desk of the Prime Minister and America's Secretary of State.
Even though the film finds its footing on laborious conversations between government and military officials, it's a fascinating take on the traditional war movie. It's rare that a film of this nature would rely so heavily on dialogue to convey the same dramatics that could otherwise be accomplished with scenes of heavy bombing and artillery fire, and director Gavin Hood manages to make every decision and every argument feel just as drastic and large as the actual drone attack.
One of the best parts of Eye in the Sky is the intimate look at the trauma that drone pilots experience, even working thousands of miles away in a Nevada bunker.
Aaron Paul's character, Steve Watts, has only been piloting drones for a few months, but this is the first attack he's been ordered to carry out. Unlike the British intelligence agency or the government group in charge of clearing the mission, Watts has been watching the people of the Kenyan village where the terrorists have taken up residence. He's the one who, inevitably, has to pull the trigger and release the missile that could kill other innocent Kenyans going about their daily life, including the young girl who has set up shop just outside the house to sell her father's bread.
It's one of Paul's most emotional performances to date, and he brings a level of humanity to the debate that isn't explored quite as much with Mirren and Rickman's characters. Unlike Paul's pilot, the other two have learned to compartmentalize what they do at work and what they do at home, approaching the situation with a level of distanced professionalism that makes the entire ordeal seem like just another part of the job instead of the deadly attack that it is.
Hood's directing manages to find the essence of the debate on drone war, and does so with little focus on the actual drone itself. Although there are scenes with the technology, most of the action happens in closed rooms behind locked doors.
Mirren, Rickman and Paul all deliver stellar performances, with each bringing a certain nuance to their characters that help progress the drama of the situation. Eye in the Sky is a fast-paced, dramatic tackling of an important subject, and Hood uses just the right amount of character study to effectively get his message across.
The best part about Eye in the Sky is that it doesn't coerce the audience into thinking that one side is right and the other is wrong, but allows them to explore the conversation through the characters on screen and decide for themselves what the right call was. It's the type of movie that stays with you even weeks after seeing it, and will open up the debate about what constitutes a righteous attack and what doesn't.
It's not a typical war movie, but it is definitely a film that finds conflict resolution within the conflicting opinions of its own characters. It's a window into a world that isn't widely explored and brings a very important topic to the forefront of film once again.