In an elegant boardroom at Whitehall, where the gears of British government turn, the hypothetical fear of a suicide bombing comes up against the actual consequence of a drone strike. The mission to capture radicalized U.K. citizen Susan Helen Danford (Lex King) and several other extremists in a Nairobi neighborhood has evolved into a “targeted assassination,” and then into a thicket of moral and legal complications, each to be argued over porcelain teacups and stained wood far from the field of battle. Is it appropriate to kill one innocent now, the amassed officials ask, in order to prevent the predicted death of 80 people in an attack that still lie in the future? Is it lawful? Is it necessary? Is it right?
That these are discrete questions lends Gavin Hood’s Eye in the Sky an academic aspect, as though the situation were developed in a college seminar, yet the film stitches the array of answers into a convincing whole. This is a mere thought experiment in the drone wars, perhaps, but it’s an exceedingly efficient, tense, and focused one, attuned to the errors of judgment and compromised ethics that crowd any white paper’s margins.
Tracing the border between the mediated and the immediate, the film’s brisk, intelligent approach to the subject matter is a function of its basic architecture, a skeleton of screens. As Danford’s pursuer, Colonel Katherine Powell (Helen Mirren), paces her concrete bunker at London’s GCHQ, nerve center of the nation’s signals intelligence program, U.S. Air Force Lieutenant Steve Watts (Aaron Paul) awaits instructions in a narrow Nevadan trailer, illuminated by images from another hemisphere; Powell’s superior, Lieutenant General Frank Benson (Alan Rickman), watches from Whitehall with members of the prime minister’s administration, while an American image analyst confirms the identities of their quarries from her Hawaiian outpost.
With a confusion of coordinates and crosshairs, signal strengths, and airspeeds, Hood treats the aesthetics of high-tech surveillance as the opaque membrane through which the prosecution of the War on Terror must pass. The crisp pictures, relayed from African soil to Western nodes of power, offer only the illusion of clarity, when in point of fact the conflict’s repercussions are as cloudy and unpredictable as a storm. It’s this disconnect between actions and outcomes, amplified by the first-person-shooter accoutrements of digitized combat, that Eye in the Sky elucidates most fully. Shifting from those on the ground in Kenya, including a nine-year-old girl in the line of fire (Aisha Takow) and an operative for the British-allied Kenyan military (Barkhad Abdi), to the cloistered figures weighing their fates in one or another secure location many miles distant, the film’s drone cameras and satellite feeds become barriers, not apertures—the seventh degree of separation that allows civilian deaths to be glossed as “collateral damage.”
As Watts balks at Powell’s aggressive posture, or Benson sighs at politicians kicking sensitive decisions up the chain of command, it’s not any one position that Eye in the Sky condemns so much as the dissociative apparatus of modern warfare itself. The film creates, in essence, a visual analogue to the language of “enemy combatants” and “rules of engagement,” in which the Western democracies conducting the War on Terror pretend to transparence in order to hide the truth.
The problem with thought experiments, of course, is their tendency to run aground at the chaotic intersection of theory and practice, and Eye in the Sky’s attention to systems and institutions reduces individuals to dots on an ideological map, or pieces on a strategic chessboard. The film’s schematic structure of arguments and counterarguments works well enough to establish the stakes, aided, as the narrative proceeds, by Paul’s watery eyes and Takow’s sweet smile, but the score’s adamant strings cue a final-act swing toward the mawkish, one ill-served by the sparse characterization.
As a rare pop-cultural treatment of what The Intercept recently called “America’s stealth war against jihad in Africa,” and as a sharp, inventive attempt to grapple with what the state’s omniscience obscures, Eye in the Sky is hard to shake; as a human drama, it can only be described as shaky. “In war, truth is the first casualty,” the film’s epigraph reads, quoting Aeschylus, but it’s never the only one.