It’s pretty telling that over the course of a year there have been not just one, but at least two major films about drone warfare. (The other is the ultimately flawed Good Kill, if anyone is interested.) It’s a complicated moral issue that deserves reasoned debate and careful analysis, which admittedly can sometimes go astray in big-budget studio filmmaking. However, sometimes a film like Eye In The Sky comes along and does justice to the topic—perhaps not perfectly, but effectively enough to make this the premier fictional piece on the subject.
In a joint operation between the U.S. and British militaries, an American colonel (Helen Mirren, doing some of the best character work of her career) and a British general (the late Alan Rickman, a deserving swan song to the man’s great career) seek to capture elite terrorists at a shelter in Nairobi, all while keeping tabs on the situation via drone surveillance and commanding ground units from operative stations in their respective countries. When it becomes clear that the terrorists are preparing a suicide bomb attack, the military and their governments agonize over whether a drone strike is worth the potential loss of civilian life in the area, namely an innocent young girl selling bread just at the edge of the blast radius.
As a tension-mounting affair, Eye In The Sky is masterful, toying with the idea of whether they will fire the payload with agonizing twists and mounting stakes. The clock is always ticking, and new wrinkles constantly make the decision that much harder to make, leaving you at the edge of your seat trying to figure out not only if they will strike the terrorists, but whether they should. There are pressing arguments both for and against drone warfare at play, and they never feel forced or expositional as delivered, whether it’s Mirren or Rickman trying to bend the legalities of the situation to suit their end goals or the bureaucratic necessities of ensuring that the risks involved are legally and morally acceptable. It’s a tough decision that nobody wants to make directly, primarily because there will be blame for the person who makes that potentially fatal call.
That’s why it’s unfortunate that the film makes a few missteps in attempting to spin some satirical scenes at the expense of that same government bureaucracy. I’ve heard this film compared to the Stanley Kubrick classic Dr. Strangelove, but quite frankly I just don’t see it. Satire is usually directed at a particular point of view, accentuating its absurdity and making a point against it. However, Eye In The Sky is firmly in the middle ground of whether drone warfare is morally acceptable, offering both sides of the argument equal shrift and not deigning to make a judgment for or against either. Consequently, this makes the sillier moments feel like a joke without a punchline, a satire that feels limp and vestigial without a proper target.
However, take those few and select moments out of the equation, and Eye In The Sky is a haunting and harrowing film, a tense minefield of moral and political consequence that will leave you with more questions than answers, which is precisely the point since there are no easy answers. Director Gavin Hood is immensely talented at giving complex issues the emotional weight they are due, and thankfully his Kubrickian mimicry is not so much of a distraction as to tarnish that talent.