Eye in the Sky is such a compelling work

by Steve Pulaski

Eye in the Sky is a solid candidate for one of the most timely films of the year in terms of subject matter, particularly because of the moral, ethical, and legal dilemmas that come with the use of drones in war/isolated attacks. In the United States, with President Barack Obama’s presidency coming to a close in just nine short months, it’s fair to believe a good portion of his presidency will be judged on his frequent use of drone attacks in a variety of different countries and the plethora of human casualties that came with the use of aerial force.

Through taut and controlled filmmaking tactics, director Gavin Hood and screenwriter Guy Hibbert create Eye in the Sky, a film that forces audiences into observing and contemplating the difficult position its characters are placed into when a drone-strike on a group of suicide bombers in a Kenyan compound is offset by the presence of a little girl selling bread outside the walls of the building. The film makes you deeply consider how you would handle the position, and no matter what you do or what your line of thinking in the moment is, it has a response to it by way of one of its many characters.

Commanding the entire operation is Colonel Katherine Powell (Helen Mirren), who’s goal was initially to capture the bombers until coming to the realization it’d be easier to kill them by way of an aerial strike. Commanding the strike and operating aerial surveillance is a young USAF pilot named Steve Watts (Aaron Paul), and working on the ground near the compound, operating small video bugs via a remote control is Jama Farah (Barkhad Abdi), a Kenyan field agent. Finally, supervising the mission before a handful of representatives from the UK government is Lieutenant General Frank Benson (Alan Rickman in his last performance).

Eye in the Sky
Directed by
Gavin Hood
Helen Mirren, Aaron Paul, Alan Rickman
Release Date
11 March 2016
Steve’s Grade: A-

All systems are go, with Watts ready to employ a drone-strike, until a little girl waltzes into the perimeter and sets up a small breadstand right outside the walls of the compound, selling bread to residents of the area and foot-soldiers. Initially, Jama tries to purchase all the bread to get the girl to leave as quickly as possible, but is spotted by soldiers who recognize him as an undercover operative and chase him out of the picture. With time running out and a serious obligation to act now before other innocent lives are killed by the terrorists, everyone is tasked with an important decision and everyone has a different viewpoint.

Hood and Hibbert wisely choose to have the characters’ opinions nuanced rather than hamfisted or sermonized in the picture. Each character gets a chance to vocalize their thoughts in a way that moves the plot rather than stalls or handicaps it to becoming a preachy showcase. During this time, we can observe a series of seriously strong performances, particularly from Rickman, who plays the role of an experienced and contained Lieutenant with extreme prose, and Abdi, who, in his biggest role since his Oscar-nominated performance as a Somalian pirate in Captain Philips, manages to once again be a mesmerizing presence simply due to his capabilities at handling challenging roles. Here, Abdi must be both passable to the public as a regular citizen as well as quiet and sly when it comes to doing his job as an operative, and in both respects, he’s great with such a little dialog.

Mirren is the central figure here in terms of the fact that Hood and Hibbert keep circumventing back to her. She states that the drone-strike must be deployed even with the girl in that radius due to the fact that failure to capture or kill the terrorists will result in casualties far greater than this particular strike would create. In the mix of the chaos, the audience simply watches, observing the chaos and trying to find a sense of reason or a way out of this troubled situation.

It’s for that reason that Eye in the Sky is such a compelling work; it’s fiction but not far off, and it’s compelling without being overreaching or overblowing a particular instance. In due time, I foresee it going down as the quintessential film to showcase modern warfare, being that much of the film is comprised of clear aerial images that passively observe unknowing subjects in a bold and artistically potent way. If there were a more emotional, tense, and unnerving look at drones in film, I’d hate to see it.