In case you didn’t know, warfare is no longer about ace fighter pilots or troops crawling through muddy battlefields. In today’s military, combat operations are conducted from trailers in the Nevada desert, the deathblow dealt by an officer’s push of a button or swivel of a joystick, but not until the command has come down from some faceless politician thousands of miles away. Accountability at either end of the kill order is about as close to zero as one can get. In case you didn’t know any of that, Hollywood has been making sure to get that point across with multiple films on the proliferation of drone warfare. Gavin Hood’s “Eye in the Sky” is just the latest film to send the familiar warnings, but it does something a little different by presenting the complicated web of maneuvers it takes before the final call is made to strike.
The result is a film that is timely, certainly relevant, but as a thriller it gets bogged down in minutiae that may be authentic but isn’t always entertaining. Screenwriter Guy Hibbert has delivered a concise yet meaty screenplay which effectively juggles multiple characters in multiple military and political scenarios. Helen Mirren plays Commander Katherine Powell, who rigidly leads a joint U.K./U.S. operation to capture radicalized British terrorist Aisha Al Hady (Lex King) who has joined up with Al Shabaab. Powell’s mission includes drone surveillance piloted by Steve Watts (Aaron Paul) and his idealistic young partner, Carrie (Phoebe Fox), holed up in a bunker somewhere in Las Vegas. When the drone reveals that Hady is meeting up with high-level officers in the terrorist group, the decision to wipe them all out with an air strike is made. But first it must go through all of the necessary political channels, which is when Lieutenant General Frank Benson (the late Alan Rickman) comes in, haggling with different officials who are all trying to cover their own asses legally while watching everything unfold live.
If Hibbert and Hood’s goal was to show the culture of bureaucratic stonewalling that comes with these life and death decisions, then they’ve more than succeeded. While the “kill” order has been given, there’s collateral damage to consider and much of the film is spent watching analysts calculate the warhead’s blast radius. Lawyers are called in to figure what the proper rules of engagement are, phone calls are made to U.S. heads of state who don’t seem to much care; the whole thing is a trainwreck where split-second decisions of military importance go to die. But in the midst of all this hand-wringing events unfold on the ground where agents (Oscar-nominee Barkhad Abdi plays one) are putting their lives in danger to secure the proper intel. Abdi proves to be the film’s heart and soul, whose sure-footed actions to save one potential victim’s life injects a bit of sanity into the process.
To make its point the film does what most of these drone movies do, and that’s posit a situation that is highly improbable if not downright impossible. And that opens up the door to a great deal of cornball philosophizing from those on every side of the issue, with all of them given ample time to make their points very clear. In that kind of environment, the analytical and the emotional are presented as being constantly at loggerheads, but that is pretty much the point of what “Eye in the Sky” is saying, and despite going a little overboard in saying it, the conversation the film should spark is well worth it.