Even If It's Fought Over Video Screens, 'Eye In The Sky' Still Weighs War's Morality
Gavin Hood's Eye in the Sky is simply the best war film I've seen in a long time. Aside from remarkable acting by Helen Mirren, Alan Rickman, Jeremy Northam and others — and the constant tension — the movie shivers with dismay that fine human beings from all over the world have mired themselves into a hopeless moral tangle.
British Col. Katharine Powell (Helen Mirren) commands an anti-terrorist operation in Kenya. With the use of drones that range in size from an airplane to an insect, she's figured out that three major terrorist operatives are together in one room of one house. At that very moment they are arming a pair of suicide bombers to go out and blow up who knows what.
From far away, the colonel watches all this unfold through video feeds from the drones. So does a British general (Alan Rickman), in London, U.S. State Department representatives in Washington, and other assorted officials spread all over the globe. They've just begun the countdown to launch a Hellfire missile from a drone when a 9-year-old girl sets up a table right next to the building to sell her mother's bread.
The global argument that follows is about weighing comparative horrors against each other, and it's not new. During World War II, the British chose to allow the ghastly German bombardment of Coventry so they would not let the Nazis know they'd broken the Nazi codes. They believed that in the long run, they'd prevent more killing than the Nazis would inflict on this city. Jewish prisoners at Auschwitz were ready to stage a revolt, when some of the group decided they could not risk the deaths of a group of children – even though they knew those children would be murdered anyway.
It's the dilemma of the actual life in front of your eyes at this moment, as opposed to the more abstract lives of people even a little bit in the future. When that Kenyan girl spreads her nice cloth on the table and arranges her mother's breads, soldiers, diplomats and strategists try to balance the life of this actual child against the lives of people they can only imagine, no matter how likely those deaths will be.
Typical war films have palpable enemies – villains – whose deaths the films and their audiences desire. Those bad people say and do bad things. The terrorists in Eye in the Sky are TV images standing around in a room, and you see them from the ceiling. It's hard to make out their faces and there's a long process to make sure these people are who the committee hopes they are. But you can't feel the people. The al-Shabaab terrorists outside, who control this neighborhood, have their faces covered.
Except for one man operating the tiny insect drone from what looks like a Gameboy, none of our guys are anywhere around – it's all video and computer feeds. This is 21st century war – the command posts can be anywhere but where the action takes place. No grizzled sergeant has to peer out of his foxhole to see the Nazi soldiers in their machine gun nest. No pilots eye each other in a dogfight. This is detached computer game warfare – until that little girl shows up.
The British, the Americans and the Kenyan soldiers aren't villains either. They want to kill the terrorists, but they're distraught about the girl. So they discuss; they call officials with higher rank; they argue legalities and ethics. The tension is excruciating. One moment you want to holler, "Do it! Do it!" In the next you want the opposite. They talk in maddening military abstractions like "collateral damage." They use initials for damage estimates.
They're decent human beings. They sound reasonable and rational -- until you realize that's only within the insane context of war. And we the audience also watch on screens.