Contemporary warfare seems to be conducted with all the calculation of insurance adjusters studying figures in ledgers, or sports executives applying “Moneyball”-style management techniques on their teams. Acts of war have been dehumanized by acronyms, decisions of life and death are lightened by multiple layers of bureaucracy, and now drone warfare enables the act of killing with nothing more than joystick with a trigger. It’s within a combination of those whirling elements that Gavin Hood (“Tsotsi,” “Rendition”) drops viewers for “Eye In The Sky,” and while certainly imperfect, there is something to admire about the film’s attempt to present the tangled logistics of a single military operation, where it seems everyone wants success but none of the responsibility of the tough decision making involved.
The script by Guy Hibbert (“Five Minutes In Heaven”) is as lean as it is clever, with the entire movie taking place over the course of just a few hours, as U.S. and U.K. authorities work together on a mission that suddenly yields much more than they were planning on. Operation Cobra is initially launched to capture radicalized Brit Aisha Al Hady (Lex King), who has joined Al-Shabaab, but the situation changes dramatically when drone footage reveals she’s rendezvoused with high-level terrorists, including a radicalized American, to enact an imminent suicide bombing in Kenya. The decision is made to change the objective of Operation Cobra from “capture” to “kill,” but doing so raises a number of questions about culpability, legality, and morality.
Criss-crossing between four settings, “Eye In The Sky” endeavors to show every facet and angle involved before someone in Las Vegas, namely young soldier Steve Watts (Aaron Paul) aided by his rookie partner Carrie Gershon (Phoebe Fox), gets the go-ahead to fire on the target from an armed drone, thousands of miles away. And so we see the military and political machinations as they occur in a compound led by the steely Colonel Katherine Powell (Helen Mirren), and a boardroom with Lieutenant General Frank Benson (Alan Rickman) at the head of a table with a handful of officials, both communicating to their stateside counterparts. Meanwhile, everyone watches the action tensely unfolding live in Nairobi, and things soon get complicated when it’s discovered there’s a young girl selling bread on the street on the edge of the strike zone.
What follows is an exploration of the deeply-absurd-yet-totally-fascinating process which determines the factors which will allow for missiles to be launched. There is much chatter about ROE (rules of engagement), CDE (collateral damage estimate), the necessity of the action versus the proportionality of the fallout, and even what the repercussions might be from a media relations scenario. If it all seems coldly impersonal, that’s the point. Military decisions cannot put individual lives into consideration, however, as the film makes clear, there are still people in the “kill chain” who don’t always easily put aside their basic human sympathies. Whether or not Hibbert’s script exactly reflects how chain of command works in these scenarios, the approximation feels authentic, and the primary purpose of “Eye In The Sky” is to put tough questions to viewers about the value systems that drive these kinds of operations.
However, the good intentions of the story are sometimes undermined by when the film feels the need to dip into genre conventions, or not so gently push an agenda. A foot chase sequence involving Kenyan agent Jama Farrah (Barkhad Abdi) late in the picture feels particularly tacked on, as do some speechifying moments which feel off balance with the rest of picture’s more ambiguous approach. If there’s a chance to edit the picture before it gets released, someone needs to drop the overly manipulative final moments that feel like they belong in a different picture.
The film’s rather low production values also mildly diminish some of the dramatic impact; Colonel Powell seems to be stuck in a drab broom closet, while it looks like the filmmakers rented a modestly priced hotel suite for Lieutenant Benson’s conference room. Meanwhile, the performances are solid if unexceptional; everyone is here to serve the material and not much else, but this is the rare case where it works. From the A-listers down to the character actors, the ensemble plays within the same ethically driven narrative, though one wishes Aaron Paul had more to do than stay in front of a computer monitor being glassy-eyed.
It’s easy to snort with cynicism at “Eye In The Sky,” and at times it deserves it, but it’s the kind of earnest picture that does require some courage to make. It’s far easier to make a strident drama that takes a one-sided position, and much harder to navigate the nuance of opinion and thorny ethical dilemmas. “Eye In The Sky” doesn’t always get it right, and sometimes makes some wrong-footed moves, but it opens a discussion and study of how we engage in acts of war that doesn’t happen often in the mainstream media. While the medium is flawed, the concerns are timely. [B-]
This is a reprint of our review from the 2015 Toronto International Film Festival.