Eye in the Sky (2015) ☆☆☆(3/4): Dilemmas of modern drone warfare

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Through its gripping drama revolving around one tricky military operation, “Eye in the Sky” presents thought-provoking dilemmas of modern drone warfare without easy answers. If the ends can justify the means, how far can they go for preventing the next terror threat they cannot overlook at all? Can they possibly cross some legal/ethical lines just for that? And can they accept its possible collateral damages as well as its potential political repercussions?

After the opening scene unfolded in a poor neighborhood area near Nairobi, Kenya, the movie quickly moves its focus to a clandestine joint military operation in its preparation step. Some of high-level members of a local Islamic terrorist organization are going to have a secret meeting somewhere in Nairobi with two young recruits who have already been on the watchlist, and the purpose of this joint operation is ambushing and arresting them all right on the spot as soon as their meeting is confirmed.

We see how the ongoing circumstance is being monitored from different locations around the world second by second. Katherine Powell (Helen Mirren), a British Colonel in the overall command of this operation, is bracing herself at her commanding post in UK as it seems quite possible that her long search for the targets will finally end within a few hours. At a US Air Force Base near Las Vegas, Lieutenant Steven Watts (Aaron Paul) and his partner Carrie Gershon (Phoebe Fox) are operating a MQ-9 reaper drone flying over Nairobi, and what is captured through the high-tech video camera of their drone is instantly analyzed by their co-working team in Hawaii.

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In Nairobi, a Kenyan army unit is ready for the call at a nearby base, and there is also an undercover surveillance team which keeps a very close eye on the site presumed to be the targets’ meeting place. The depiction of their surveillance technology in the film may not look that realistic to you, but I heard that it is actually closer to reality than we think. When I was watching the gut-chilling finale sequence of “Syriana” (2005), I hastily thought the military technology depicted during that sequence was a bit unrealistic, but then, what do you know, I began to hear about those targeted killings by US Army drones only a few years later.

In London, Lieutenant General Frank Benson (Alan Rickman) and several high-ranking British government officials are patiently watching the progress of the operation. Once two of their targets are spotted and then tracked down, everything seems to go well as planned, but then there comes an unexpected turn which changes the whole nature of the operation. It turns out that their targets are actually preparing for another terror, and, unfortunately, drone attack is the only possible way to stop these terrorists’ terrible plan under this changed circumstance.

While Colonel Powell believes the targets should be eliminated as soon as possible, the British government officials see the situation in different views, and they are concerned about whether there is anything illegal about their authorization of this targeted killing. As a matter of fact, two of their targets are technically British citizens, and the targeted killing of its citizens will not be a good publicity for the British government.

The screenplay by Guy Hibbert shows a wry sense of humor when its government official characters understandably hesitate at their frustrating decision point. The more they discuss about their imminent matter, the more they are aware of its enormous political risk. They eventually choose to seek the approval from their superiors, but their superiors are also reluctant to give their 100% approval despite the full support from the high-ranking US government officials, who are indubitably eager to erase several names around the top of their list of terrorists to be eliminated.

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In the meantime, the situation becomes more complicated than before as another unexpected factor comes into the picture. A little girl is selling bread near the site to be bombed, and that leads to another dilemma for everyone in the operation. Considering that their targets can leave the site at any point and then can cause far more damages and casualties, it can be argued that they should accept the unavoidable collateral damage represented by that girl, but then it can also be argued that the bombing will seriously damage their moral stance in the War on Terror. After all, which one will draw public attention more, a little girl’s tragic death or a prevented terror attempt?

The director Gavin Hood, a South African filmmaker who has been mainly known for his Oscar-winning film “Tsotsi” (2005), did a skillful job of juggling many different elements in Hibbert’s screenplay. The editing by Megan Gill is taut and succinct while never letting us get lost amid multiple plot threads, and it surely helps that many of the key characters in the film are played by recognizable performers like Helen Mirren, Aaron Paul, Barkhad Abdi, Jeremy Northam, Iain Glen, and Alan Rickman, an invaluable British actor who sadly passed away not long before the movie was released in US early in this year.

Because of their shared main subject, “Eye in the Sky” is automatically compared to Andrew Niccol’s “Good Kill” (2014), and I think the former is superior to the latter in many aspects. Driven by its thriller premise, it is more focused and thoughtful with a wider and more complex view on the subject, and it is also compelling to watch how its plot pieces come to gather together at its inevitable narrative endpoint. This is a smart, intelligent war film, and I think you should watch it for some thoughts regardless of your opinion on modern drone warfare.

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