‘Eye in the Sky’ Shows There Is No Remove When Waging War from a Distance

For all the intelligence and firepower that such technology allows, drones also raise pressing questions, laid out in Eye in the Sky with a schematic and often unnerving precision.
Eye in the Sky
Gavin Hood
Bleecker Street
11 Mar 2016 (US) / 18 Mar 2016 (UK)

“Every stranger is suspicious. Even a Somali.” Major Moses Owiti (Vusi Kunene) is used to sending his men into trouble. Stationed in Nairobi, he’s currently tracking down terrorist cells, in league with the British military with input from the US. He and his compatriots have excellent machines to help them in their efforts, weapons, tracking and surveillance devices, as well as the drones used to deploy them.

Drones grant Eye in the Sky its title as well as its plot. For all the intelligence and firepower that such technology allows, drones also raise pressing questions, laid out in the film with a schematic and often unnerving precision. Each player has access to a puzzle piece, but no one can assess everything. Moses knows, for instance, the risk posed to his Somali operative, Jama (Barkhad Abdi), even as the British Colonel Powell (Helen Mirren) misreads the situation, thinking any African might pass in any African space. She’s in a bunker at London’s GCHQ (Government Communications Headquarters), focused on her mission to arrest UK citizen Susan Danford (Lex King), now planning an attack in Kenya with her terrorist husband.

Powell presses for an “eye” on her target, and so Jama makes into a marketplace near the terrorists’ meeting. From here, he sends in a drone resembling a big bug that flies in through a window and proceeds to observe from the rafters. The scene is instantly transmitted to multiple screens: in Powell’s concrete-walled bunker; in a drone-piloting facility outside Vegas (where the US Air Force lieutenant Steve [Aaron Paul] is ordered to launch hellfire missiles on a Nairobi neighborhood); and in a Whitehall boardroom, where Lieutenant General Benson (Alan Rickman) seeks legal go-aheads from British ministers. Their confidence soon turns into anguish as they measure percentages, the likelihoods of suicide bomb victims versus collateral damage.

Modeled in part on the thought experiment known as the “trolley problem”, Gavin Hood’s movie provides you with more information than any of the participants might have, including glimpses of just who that collateral damage will be. To this end, to make you aware of costs and risks, the movie opens on Fatima (Faisa Hassan) baking bread, sliding globs of dough toward the camera, located inside her oven. The effect is a daunting dark frame, denoting Fatima’s limited awareness.

Eye in the Sky Official Trailer #1 (2016) Aaron Paul, Helen Mirren Thriller Movie HD

Being one of the civilians in whose name violence is waged but who have precious little to do with the waging, Fatima lives at daily risk of attacks perpetrated by the West as well as terrorists. So too is her young daughter Alia (Aisha Takow), adorable and obedient and bright, the film’s most obvious emblem of innocence and obliviousness.

Those who do see this danger (Powell and Benson, Steve and Jama) bite their lips and ponder the best course of action, analyzing whether their ongoing war efforts — or their political positions — can sustain the PR hit of lives lost to a drone strike. As the military officers and civilian government officials rehearse what’s at stake for whom, you’re reminded rthat their views are limited by their backgrounds and by literal frames (not to mention failing drone batteries). As they discuss their targets (which suicide bomber had a “troubled childhood”) or reinforce their self-images (“Never tell a soldier that he does not know the cost of war!”), the decision-makers embody a problem that seems impossible to fix.

That problem is a function of advancing technologies, designed to make war more efficient and safer for those conducting it, taking aim at targets from across the planet. Eye in the Sky describes the problem in outlines, cutting between situations like a procedural. None of the players has a function outside the problem. There’s Powell briefly at home beside her sleeping husband. We see Alia’s father fashioning a hula hoop for her even as he warns her never to play with it in front of anyone outside the family. Steve and his female piloting partner Carrie (Phoebe Fox) hunch over their consoles, fingers on the triggers, eyes tearing up.

In these brief moments, the movie recalls Hood’s 2005 film, Tsotsi, in its consideration of effects stretching far beyond any immediate circumstance. But before you can start thinking about how fear and poverty, structural oppressions and emotional loyalties, might shape the choices people make during Eye in the Sky, you’re reminded again of the limits of such thinking. As Jama remains on site, his is the only consistent view — apart from Fatima and her family’s — that’s not mediated by a screen. Eye in the Sky concentrates on his face. At first he has confidence in his skills and manipulations. Then, increasingly, dread and anxiety cast a pall over his features. You realize why no one wants to be where he is, where screens don’t limit what he sees.

RATING 6 / 10