It’s hard to imagine a more timely war film than Gavin Hood’s $13 million drone warfare drama “Eye in the Sky,” which was acquired by Bleecker Street at the Toronto International Film Festival in 2015 and opened early last spring. It’s the kind of mid-budget independent actioner that we don’t get nearly enough of these days, and moviegoers ate it up: The thriller grossed nearly $19 million during its 19 weeks in theaters.
Bolstered by major star power, including Helen Mirren and the late Alan Rickman in one of his final roles, Hood’s film compellingly tackles the sensitive questions and complications of drone warfare. Using multiple points of view, the feature follows the aftermath of the murder of a high-ranking British agent by the Al-Shabaab terrorist group, kicking into motion a plan to capture and try to annihilate a pair of involved Al-Shabaab militants before they can carry out a suicide bombing.
All the while, a young Kenyan girl stands in the line of potential fire should the plan to kill the militants — using a U.S.-deployed drone — come to fruition. It’s tense and smart and heart-pounding, but for Hood, all of those elements are secondary to his primary objective: accuracy.
“It’s extremely accurately researched,” Hood recently told IndieWire.
At the start, Hood didn’t know much about drone warfare — which involves complex procedures and positions that are both “somewhat controversial” and “murky,” in his own words — and the filmmaker found it necessary to bone up on his material before tackling it.
“I knew no more and no less than probably the average person who reads the newspaper and follows these things in general, but I was by no means an expert when I read Guy Hibbert’s wonderful script,” Hood said. “I read it and immediately wanted to know how accurate it was – as do many people who see the film.”
Working closely with Hibbert, along with taking extensive meetings with the Air Force and various human rights groups, Hood happily confirmed that the film’s portrayals of both opinions and operations is true to life. And, if anything, it made him only want to dive deeper into the issue — something the film allowed him to do.
“I felt more humbled by the complexity of the problem and the need for genuine intelligent conversation,” Hood said.
Hibbert’s script utilizes multiple points of view — from Mirren as the matter-of-fact UK Colonel Powell to Aaron Paul as the drone pilot and various other officers, operatives and special forces — to paint a full picture of the situation. His dedication to addressing different points of views inspired Hood to do the same.
For one thing, Hood was struck by the various feelings on drone warfare from just inside the government at large. “When I began to explore the point of view from both sides of the debate, and was amazed to see, surprised to see that there is not one point of view, even in the military,” he said.
He added, “I hope that every character in the film represents a genuine point of view.” And that includes the audience.
The director still seems to be grappling with the ethics and questions even now, over two years since the film first started shooting. He said, “How do you criticize a possible dictator in a third world country for authorizing a drone strike in your territory or in another territory when your own record is somewhat unclear?”
Hood was also adamant that the film shows just one, very specific situation, and is not intended to serve as a single comment on drone warfare. As ever, the questions are thorny, and both Hood and his film fully embrace that.
“The film presents a very particular scenario,” Hood said. “We could change the specs just slightly, and the whole viewpoint could change.”
One part of that particular scenario that was changed before production? The choice to make the film’s primary protagonist, Colonel Powell, into a woman. Modern indeed.
Back in October, Mirren expressed an optimism about the forward motion of the entertainment industry, as evidenced by her role in “Eye in the Sky,” which was originally intended for a man. “I feel, in the last ten years in particular, an amazing shift. Ten years ago, I don’t think I would have been cast in this movie,” she said.
Although Hibbert’s script originally called for a male Colonel Powell, Hood later made the decision to give it some small tweaks in order to turn it into a part that Mirren could play. (At that same event, Hood told the crowd that any “rewrites” to Hibbert’s script to accommodate his choice were mainly focused on changing her first name, so refreshingly gender-blind was the original work.)
More than anything, however, Hood just wants his film to get people talking. After screening it for nearly a year to a variety of viewers including members of the military, the director was confident that “Eye in the Sky” would spawn the intelligent discourse that is key to untangling these issues.
And that’s what he finds to be the real victor in this particular war because, as Hood puts it, if there’s one thing he fears, it’s not the drones or the militants, it’s something very different indeed.
“I fear the lack of rigorous conversation,” he said.
“Eye in the Sky” is currently available on DVD and digital.