Released: April 2016
Director: Gavin Hood
Released in the last months of Barak Obama’s drone-happy presidency, Eye in the Sky takes an unflinching look at the new models of drone warfare and international cooperation in the face of global terrorism. So much about it shouldn’t work, taking place as it does mostly in meeting rooms or on computer screens, rather than at the front line of warfare as we as used to seeing it, but the end result is a breathlessly taught film whose high stakes make each decision taken a heart wrenching moment.
Helen Mirren plays Colonel Katherine Powell, a UK-based British officer in charge of a unit capturing terrorists in Kenya. Her work means using American drones and working with American intelligence to help capture British and American citizens working in Kenya. It’s a mess of hierarchies and command lines from the outset, and when drone surveillance reveals the threat posed by those on the ground to be much more immediate than anyone previously supposed, who has final authorisation and whose plan gets used is subject to fierce debate under an ever ticking clock. The tense lead up to the firing of just one missile is played out in real time, with politicians, officers and soldiers all weighing in on whether or not to fire.
This is not a film that takes it’s position at the heart of a heated ethical dilemma lightly. Collateral damage is discussed in depth and at length, and whichever side you end up falling on, it is hard not be able to understand the reasoning from each party in the debate. It explores the heavy toll taken on by drone pilots and the new stresses caused by long-distance conflict. It covers the treatment and use of local operatives by US and UK forces, how well trained they are, or should be, and how well protected they are. It shows the differing priorities of the military and the politicians, and the weight new media and image management has on decisions of international importance.
Aaron Paul shows us all again what an incredible actor he is, and just how quickly he is growing into more mature roles, putting in a nuanced and restrained performance as the Nevada-based drone pilot. Put on the spot between his own judgement and lines of command, he makes sitting in a shed 10,000 miles away from his missile look no less harrowing than being right in the thick of it.
Eye in the Sky is a military thriller for the modern world. With the exception of Jama Farah (Barkhad Abdi) on the ground, none of the lead roles are in any danger throughout the film. The tension here doesn’t derive from explosions and near misses, but from the sheer weight of every decision made. This is not an easy watch, but I think it might be an essential one.