A group of terrorists leave their car to enter the home where they will plan their next attack, observed only by a hummingbird perched on a nearby telephone pole. As the scene pans to the front of the bird, it tilts its head back to allow its internal cameras to better follow its targets. This tiny UAV, which bears a striking resemblance to the AeroVironment nano-hummingbird drone, is just one of a wide array of UAVs that hold center stage in Eye in the Sky, a new film by Gavin Hood.
The plot is focused on an international counterterrorism operation meant to capture al-Shabbab operatives operating in Kenya, as well as on the wide ranging – and often frustrating – bureaucratic processes that govern such operations. But in a larger sense, the movie is about how UAVs are used for military purposes, and about the relationship between civilian and military leaders in an age of terrorism and protracted urban warfare. The film approaches these topics with sensitivity and nuance, and the final product is fascinating.
To begin with, the performances are fantastic. Alan Rickman especially manages to infuse a wry humor into the interactions between the military and civilian leadership throughout the film. This humor is a welcome relief from the otherwise inescapable dramatic tension that suffuses the film. Much of this tension comes from Academy Award winner Helen Mirren, playing a British officer who has been pursuing some of the al-Shabbab operatives for years. Her drive to finally neutralize their threat represents one of the core, driving engines of the narrative as whole – and she conveys that singular focus perfectly. Additionally, the ever-building tension makes the film profoundly engrossing, much to the filmmaker’s credit. Eye in the Sky is a movie that makes you sit on the edge of your seat with suspense while watching a child sell bread on a street corner.
Additionally, the film does an excellent job of highlighting the interconnectedness of modern counter-terrorism operations. The focus is on a single operation, which is geographically confined to a small part of one city. Despite this, relatively few of the characters are ever in the same room with each other, as the various elements of the operations are spread around the globe. Leadership in Britain, UAV pilots in Nevada, assets on the ground in Kenya, and analysts in Hawaii are all working together in real time to make the operation happen. At the same time, the ease of communication causes problems by making it easier for jittery policy-makers to pass responsibility around to others, a persistent theme of the film that at times reaches comic degrees of absurdity.
Arguably the strongest aspect of the movie is its willingness to adopt an extremely nuanced approach to the topic of drone operations. Eye in the Sky doesn’t take a position on the efficacy of using armed drones in counterterrorism operations. Instead, the characters bring the pros and cons of both sides to life, and discuss them in a way that does not feel overly expository or boring. Both sides make legitimate arguments, and neither side is declared the victor. Rather, the decision is made, and the fallout from that decision is shown. Whether it was right or wrong is left to the viewer.
While people lie at the center of the film, the technologies at play are practically their own characters. In addition to the communications and analytic systems that enable decision makers to talk to each other and guide operations, the drones – as one would expect – also feature quite prominently. However, the the more familiar, armed drones that take out terrorists get comparatively less screen time than the smaller, camouflaged drones that are used for gathering intelligence inside buildings.
The only downside to the movie is that some of the characters are a little thin. Among the American politicians, the British politicians, and the Kenyan civilians, there are characters who are obviously meant to be symbolic of a specific viewpoint – and this sometimes results in characters that lack depth. This is especially true of Monica Dolan’s character, who is clearly a signifier of one specific viewpoint with little else known about her. Likewise, the British politicians come across as indecisive and worried about taking blame, while American politicians are trigger-happy and cold.
However, the performances are the saving grace in this area. The actors are able to make otherwise two-dimensional characters seem human, and it allows those characters to have a deeper emotional impact on the audience. Thus, the indecisive British policymakers can be seen as grappling with a significant moral decision, while the Americans have adopted a pragmatic, utilitarian solution to that same problem – and both sides can be seen as having value. Even Dolan’s character, despite being profoundly aggravating for most of the film, can be empathized with and understood as fighting for a principle – rather than just being stubbornly obtuse.
Overall, Eye in the Sky is an excellent film that focuses on an important topic in a nuanced and multifaceted fashion. The performances are first rate; the characters are human, moral, and empathetic without being cloying; and the film leaves it up to the viewer to determine whether the right call was made – but still shows the cost. The movie explores a sensitive topic without coming across as preachy or bullish, but rather explores both sides of the issue and allows them each to present their own merits and limitations. Strong recommend.