The technological cutting edge of military weaponry always seems to advance faster than humankind’s ability to process its moral and philosophical implications. And yet the big ethical challenges of war remain fundamentally the same throughout the ages: Can “collateral damage” ever be justified? Which is the more compelling imperative: “Do no harm” or “Do the greatest good for the greatest number”? It’s greatly to the credit of director Gavin Hood and screenwriter Guy Hibbert that their tense, well-crafted new espionage thriller, Eye in the Sky, offers no easy answers to such questions.
The movie’s premise is that three long-sought, most-wanted Al Shabaab terrorists have gathered in a safe house in Nairobi, where two suicide bombers are about to suit up in explosives for a massive attack, their target suspected to be a shopping mall. Military and civilian officials and functionaries in England, the US, Africa and elsewhere are closely coordinating surveillance and weighing the potential for a surgical strike via drone missile. The clock is ticking, but the house is sited in a bustling neighborhood, and civilians keep wandering in and out of the estimated fatal blast zone.
Early on, we are introduced in a fairly intimate way to one of those potential victims: an adorable 9-year-old girl, Alia (Aisha Takow), who sells the bread that her mother bakes at a streetside table just outside the targeted compound. Telling details about her life as a girl under the rule of Islamic law are quickly sketched for the viewer’s benefit: When a devout Muslim customer stops by the family home where Alia’s father runs a bicycle repair shop, he must hide her schoolbooks from view and scold her for playing with her hula-hoop. Alia’s freedom to be educated, to have innocent fun: Are not these things worth fighting for? Eye in the Sky implicitly asks us.
Equally brisk and economical is the rest of the setup, in which we meet Colonel Katherine Powell (Helen Mirren), the tough-as-nails British military intelligence officer who has devoted the past six years to pursuing these particular terrorists; her war-weary superior, Lieutenant General Frank Benson (Alan Rickman); two green young American remote drone pilots (Aaron Paul and Phoebe Fox), on whose shift the story unfolds; a field investigator stationed near the target site who operates the surveillance “bug” (Barkhad Abdi); and several other key members of the counterterrorism team. Keen on preventing the imminent suicide attack, Colonel Powell persuades General Benson to authorize proceeding with a drone strike.
But the decisionmaking process is immediately complicated by the interference of a variety of government lawyers and functionaries whose jobs are primarily to protect their bosses from negative publicity if things go awry. Elements of grim humor creep in as it becomes ever-clearer that even the officials most piously resistant to taking actions that jeopardize civilians in the strike area are less concerned with a little girl’s life than with not wanting to be the one held responsible for “losing the propaganda war.” Layer upon layer of bureaucratic indecision pile up and fritter away precious time as the terrorists prepare to head out. What is right? Or what is less wrong?
Eye in the Sky doesn’t take an overt position one way or the other, but succinctly and fairly lays out the arguments for and against interceding while unveiling ulterior motives all around. No one involved in the counterterrorism operation is ethically pure, nor is any of them an outright villain. In its nailbiting suspense, it’s a classic spy thriller; but it’s one designed to make audiences think.
Visually, the film is distinguished by many lovely cinematographic touches, evoking the varied feels of scattered climates with deft tricks of light, like a halo effect burnishing the silhouettes of the two American drone pilots as they cross a Nevada desert station to their posts. The Nairobi scenes are shot in South Africa, the director’s homeland, using a mostly African crew. The spare score by Paul Hepker and Mark Kilian ratchets up the suspense when needed without whacking us over the head.
And the acting is superb all around. Helen Mirren’s steely presence is reason enough to see Eye in the Sky – as is Alan Rickman’s last-ever appearance on the silver screen. His General Benson is no rigid, bullying, empathy-impaired commander, but a human being deeply saddened by the implications of what he must do, and why. His final speech is a fitting sendoff to a brilliant acting career. Check it out.
To read more of Frances’ movie reviews, visit our Almanac Weekly website at https://hudsonvalleyone.com/category/film.