Culture

‘Eye In The Sky’: An Ambivalent, Thrilling Movie About Drones That America Needs To Talk About

CREDIT: Keith Bernstein / Bleecker Street

Helen Mirren as Col. Katherine Powell in Eye In The Sky

Growing up in ‘60s and ‘70s South Africa, Eye In The Sky director Gavin Hood’s primary exposure to the idea of war was old, morally simple mid-century movies like The Guns Of Navarone. But at 17, he was drafted and sent to Angola to fight one of the many actual wars that Soviet and American proxies waged during the Cold War. He lost a close friend there and came out a very different person, dissatisfied with the fictitious simplicity of Hollywood war.

“You move through a great deal of anger,” Hood said of his friend’s death. “You finally realize you’re angry at yourself, because you’ve been naïve, not asking any questions, just going along.” Unwilling to serve apartheid South Africa’s military further as a reservist, he moved to the United States in 1989 to study filmmaking. He stayed gone until Nelson Mandela was set free to bind the country together for a peaceful transition to desegregated democracy, rather than the bloody civil war so many had feared there.

The director’s experience in Angola and disgust with his society might easily have hardened him into a mirror opposite of his boyhood self, certain of the rightness of his new, hard-won beliefs. Instead, it seems to have made him an equal-opportunity skeptic.

“Too much of the time the conversation seems to be about ‘I’m right and you’re wrong’ in today’s politics. The real question is, am I capable of wrong? How can I look inwards and ask what is my capacity for wrongdoing,” Hood told ThinkProgress. “In that sense, in a twisted way, I’m grateful for my strange background.”

Eye In The Sky is Hood’s attempt to turn that inquisition to drone warfare. The subject of remote-controlled death machines has cropped up repeatedly in recent years as writers, filmmakers, and citizens wrestle with age-old questions of the laws of war and diplomacy in the context of new technology.

Hood’s film stands among the finest works on the subject yet. Where most projects urge audiences toward one viewpoint or another only to disappear into an ideologically entrenched media landscape, Eye In The Sky requires audiences to chart their own path. Hood and screenwriter Guy Hibbert refuse to dispel the moral fog and tell you which opinions are good or bad.

The story centers on a family of Somali refugees living next door to al-Shabab terrorists in a Nairobi slum. The daughter (Faisa Hassan) of a bicycle repairman (Armaan Haggio) sells her mother’s (Aisha Takow) bread at a table right outside a safehouse where American, British, and Kenyan intelligence teams have tracked two Somali-American children and the white British woman who helped recruit them as suicide bombers.

Hood gradually establishes spy and civilian alike with short vignettes and dialog details. The family of innocents are politically moderate, yet the father must reprimand his daughter for playing with a hula hoop while a customer with more radical politics is present. The young American drone pilot (Aaron Paul) explains he signed up to pay off his student loans, and chuckles that working at a base just outside Las Vegas has its perks. One of the Kenyan operatives (Oscar nominee Barkhad Abdi) gripes about the code words their allies use to abstract the place he lives. The British General (the late Alan Rickman) in charge stops for a baby shower gift on his way to the office but buys the wrong one, leaving his aide to re-run the errand while he oversees Col. Katherine Powell’s (Helen Mirren) drone operation in the skies above Nairobi.

Then Hood and Hibbert set these characters loose on the dramatic jungle gym established in the opening scenes. Drones enable them to see for certain that the British-American cell in Nairobi are loading suicide vests and preparing to kill. Software lets them estimate exactly how likely they are to kill the bread-selling, hula-hooping child if they fire on the cell, which includes three of the top five targets on Mirren’s most-wanted list for East Africa. The setup provokes audiences to take a side on that question early, then spends more than an hour complicating everything for you no matter which stance you take.

A Film For Doubters, In A Time Of Certainty

Perhaps its inevitable that Eye In The Sky will be accused of glorifying the very war it questions. Hood does use the cinematic language of glory at certain points, digitally inserting lens flare into one shot of the American predator drone and layering the adrenalizing roar of a jet engine into another moment.

In a signature moment near the end, Rickman upbraids the woman who serves as stand-in for the most absolute form of opposition to drone strikes to “never tell a soldier that he does not know the cost of war.” Together, such moments might seem to add up to a sort of grim approval, were they not so effectively balanced out by other choices Hood makes.

“Some people will say that when Rickman says that, that clinches it,” Hood said. “Well, then we should’ve stopped the movie there! But what we do instead is say yes, for him that’s true.” When the film continues on for another five minutes to show that Paul’s pilot has to be right back at work 12 hours after a mission that might have broken him, and that the long-term consequences of the group’s choices are uncertain, the righteous tenor of Rickman’s line devolves into a bitter uncertainty.

The ambivalence Hood and Hibbert bake into their filmmaking reflects both the specific argument about the use of drones and a more abstract concern with how the internet age tends to drown out true give-and-take conversations about tense subjects. Hood feels his 2007 film Rendition became, in the hands of critics, an excuse to retreat to preconceived and simplistic stances toward the war on terror.

“Most of what I got from that film was a polarization of the critics, where those who believe x like your movie and those whole believe y hate it. So, who did I help? I’ll feel like we’ve failed” if Eye In The Sky fails to provoke a more complicated, self-scrutinizing response, the director said.

“Our politics has become my view, and fuck your view, and I’m gonna win. It’s A or B, as opposed to A talks to B and we arrive at C,” said Hood.

Eye In The Sky tries to facilitate that more complicated conversation by subtly mixing moments that validate both the hawkish and dovish positions, repeatedly challenging each. After the drone strike, a group of al-Shabab militants literally transform a tank into an ambulance to rush the wounded girl to a hospital. The girl’s traumatized parents, played by actual Somali refugees from al-Shabab violence, express the kind of pain that might easily turn a person toward the radicalism of their terrorist neighbors.

Hood avoids shading his work too far in either direction, mixing humanizing close-ups of the American drone operators with chilling drone’s-eye views that underscore the inhuman nature of their weapon. The British in their high-ceiling bunker, the Americans in their cost-cutting storage container in the Las Vegas desert, and the Kenyans in their dented surveillance van all live out parallel stresses and fears.

Beneath Hood’s visual storytelling tricks, Hibbert’s screenplay makes the moral and legal questions surrounding drone warfare explicit. Halfway in, Eye In The Sky vaults from the understated character sketches of its first hour into a highminded ethical debate among officials in the British high command over whether or not their Colonel can order Paul’s American drone pilot to fire given the high likelihood that the bread-selling child will be killed.

The tonal shift is abrupt and jarring. Delicate portrayals of the human beings who execute war-on-terror policies give way to lawyerly arguments about those policies themselves. It’s 12 Angry Men at 20,000 feet.

Hibbert and Hood do manage to keep the pace of the film lively despite giving large chunks of time to the Brits. And like the movie as a whole, the conversation the officials have can be read in a variety of ways.

Their endless deferrals to someone higher up the chain of command will read as feckless dithering to certain audiences and heroic adherence to first principles to others. The impatient American officials who break in to scold the Brits for overthinking things might confirm additional stereotypes audiences bring to the theater.

But here, too, Hood is hoping for a more complicated response. “[Hibbert] manages to combine a thriller movie where we wanna know what’s gonna happen next and we’re on the edge of our seats, with a great courtroom drama,” he said. “So to the extent that it maybe stalls the thriller a bit, I think that’s a small price to pay for the opportunity to present these multiple points of view to an audience.”

The veer into “courtroom drama” works in large part because it is also laced with ambivalence and thought-provoking details. When Mirren’s Colonel suggests intentionally fudging the numbers on collateral damage to persuade the politicians and Rickman’s General approves the ploy, it’s simultaneously a nefarious cheating of the legal system and a bold gambit to prevent imminent bombings. The Foreign Secretary (Game Of Thrones’ Iain Glen) is asked to weigh in after Hood shows him away from a conference with the acronym “IBS” to find a toilet for a bad case of unexplained diarrhea. The script allows audiences to read him either as a man so wracked by stress and uncertainty that his bowels betray him or as a decadent figure whose role in the war industry means even his struggle-shits take place in luxurious hotel rooms. Or, perhaps, as both of those things at once.

Getting the legal questions right without losing audiences hooked in by the thriller plot is tricky, and the idea that a live military operation against three most-wanted terrorists would be stalled for hours of but-on-the-other-hand strains credulity. But Hood, who practiced law himself for a few months before his acting career took off, insists that the argument also reflects a real-world dispute within the military community over drone strikes.

“Within the military, there’s not one point of view on drone operations,” he said, citing numerous interviews done in preparation for Eye In The Sky where military officials displayed a range of views on how decisions about drone operations should be made.

“People say it’s this big new thing. No. The guillotine very efficiently takes off people’s heads, no collateral damage,” said Hood. “The question is whether you put the right head on the block, whether that head being chopped off wins people over to your point of view or alienates them further and now you need to chop off more heads.”

The strategic efficacy of drones is indeed the question for western societies that have the means to fling mechanized death at amorphous enemies that intentionally set up shop near innocents.

But in the days before Eye In The Sky hits screens, Hood’s facing a different one. Will the people who turn up for his movie live up to its open-mindedness and contemplate opposing views? Or will the technology-aided tribalism of the Twitter age devour his film before the earnest conversations he’s calling for ever get off the tarmac?