Eye in the Sky

We went to see Eye in the Sky this week, on the recommendation of a friend. I don’t think I’d have bothered otherwise, since the poster looked a bit predictable, and the subject matter (drone attacks) didn’t particularly draw me in. I’m very glad I saw it, though.

The story is told in almost real time and revolves around the allied forces of the UK, the US and Kenya carrying out a drone attack in Kenya. Initially, they are working with Kenyan forces on the ground to capture terrorists, including those from the UK and the US, with the drone providing visual information to the people on the ground. However, the plan changes when the terrorists move location and a drone attack becomes an option. A further complication is introduced as a young girl is in the zone of attack, with a high likelihood of death if the drone attack goes ahead.

We see the scenario unfold from several perspectives on the allied side. The UK Colonel running the operation, the UK General liaising with the politicians as it happens, the US service-people controlling the drone (including the weapon) from a porta-cabin outside Las Vegas, the Kenyan agents on the ground, US and UK foreign secretaries being called in to the conversation from their trade missions abroad. And as the situation changes, we’re confronted with the legal, political and moral decision making that happens at each stage.

These various arguments are really well explored. Is the near certain death of a girl more or less important than the likely death of up to 80 people by suicide bombing? If ‘we’ kill the girl, verses ‘they’ kill the 80, does that make a difference? Legally? Morally? Politically? And politically is not just about domestic politics, but also about the impact to the propaganda war in terms of possible recruitment into extremism. How does a 65% likelihood of death compare with 45%?

Sarah and I were both reminded of 12 Angry Men. Partly because of the near real time narrative, which would have worked really well as a stage play, but also because of the importance of so many individuals in making the ‘right’ decisions.

We were also struck by the difference in approaches portrayed by the US and UK governmental systems. I suspect based entirely in fact, the US legal approach has a points system which was used to calculate the value of the girl’s life vs the wanted terrorists’ lives. In the UK system, the Attorney General was seen to assess and explain the issues at stake, and there was a more nuanced, albeit perhaps less immediately effective, discussion.

As a viewer, we were challenged to consider which of these approaches made sense, and what decisions we’d make as the facts were presented. Seeing the stress of the politicians facing these issues made them far more relatable.

The Colonel is played by Hellen Mirren, and I thought she played it very compellingly. I was surprised and pleased to see a woman in such a pivotal role (but wasn’t surprised to learn it had initially been written for a man). The other key female role is played by Monica Dolan, who is an archetypal politician getting her first real glimpse of the realities of war, and is the main voice against the attack. She could so easily have come across as ‘wet’ or ineffectual, but the part is really well played and she seemed very real to me.

Overall, in fact, the cast are excellent (including Alan Rickman in his last film role) and their abilities as stage actors felt like part of what made the film work so well.

Go. See. Think.