“Eye in the Sky” provides a fascinating look at the topic of drone warfare. The modern military thriller screened at the 2015 Toronto International Film Festival, and received its United States theatrical on March 11 2016. Covering a controversial and often polarizing issue, “Eye in the Sky” presents a nuanced overview of the ethical debate over drone strikes. It’s brilliantly acted, masterfully written, and utterly riveting.
British military officer Colonel Katherine Powell (Helen Mirren) oversees a military capture mission in Nairobi, Kenya of wanted terrorists, one of which is British national Susan Danford aka Ayesha AL-Hady (Lex King). To aid in the capture mission are local Kenyan armed forces, field agent Jama Farah (Barkhad Abdi), and United States Air Force (USAF) drone support. Pilots Steve Watts (Aaron Paul) and Carrie Gershon (Phoebe Fox) provide drone reconnaissance. An international slew of military and political parties including Lt. General Frank Benson (Alan Rickman), British Foreign Secretary James Willett (Iaian Glen), Angela Northman (Monica Dolan), and Attorney General George Matherson (Richard McCabe) debate among themselves.
The mission seems to be routine until Danford and her associates move into an uncontrolled neighborhood, leaving the USAF drone and a small drone disguised as an insect (controlled by Farah), as the only watch over the terrorists. Status changes from capture to kill when Powell and her team observe the terrorists arming themselves with explosives, and preparing for a suicide bombing. Further complicating the situation is a small girl, Alia Mo’Allim (Aisha Takow), selling bread in what may be the blast radius of a potential attack on the terrorists’ compound.
“Eye in the Sky” is a largely dialogue-driven film, and grips audience attention throughout its entirety, a difficult feat. The action sequences, such as Danford travelling to an unpredicted location, and Farah improvising to remain undercover, are minor compared to the talking points. After the revelation that the terrorists are planning a suicide bombing, Powell becomes determined to attack before the terrorists do, which sets off a chain of political and military discussions. On one front, Powell and Benson urge action, while Northman challenges their decision, supported by Watts’ pushback when commanded to fire the drone’s missiles.
Benson and Powell argue that it’s better to prevent the deaths of many and risk sacrificing one small girl. Meanwhile, Alia and her family, father Musa (Armaan Haggio) and mother Fatima (Faisa Hassan), are blissfully unaware of the impending doom. While Musa repairs bicycles, Fatima bakes bread which Alia sells on the street. In secret, Alia studies as well as plays- at one point she’s even reprimanded by one of her father’s customers for dancing with a hula hoop. Thus, the audience is drawn into the film, the debate of whether to take out the terrorists or wait being an even more emotional decision. Similarly, nobody seems to want to make the call, as it keeps being referred up the chain of command, with even Foreign Secretary Willett eschewing a verdict.
Acting is terrific, with an unbelievably talented ensemble cast. Helen Mirren appears staunch in her belief of what’s best. She radiates careful yet cold calculation and logic in her determination. Aaron Paul and Phoebe Fox are terrific in humanizing the drone pilots. It’s revealed that neither party has ever fired, both having merely played the role of recon. Paul expresses physical discomfort with his orders, in addition to pushing back against Powell’s insistence that he commence firing upon Danford. Alan Rickman is at his finest, whether purchasing a baby doll for a relative, or delivering the haunting final line “Never tell a soldier that he does not know the cost of war.”
Dialogue is taut, and despite several quick-burst action scenes, it’s the tense conversations that perpetuate “Eye in the Sky.” Gavin Hood’s stellar script maintains a hasty pace- the entire film transpires in a matter of hours. Viewers, through hearing a variety of arguments from top officials and seeing faux drone footage, are sucked into the film with a strong emotional attachment. Ultimately, it’s this combination of acting, screenplay, and an unbiased, bleak stance on drone strikes that makes “Eye in the Sky” a masterpiece. Alan Rickman’s line in the finale illustrates that there each outcome was horrific in its own right. Powerful, relevant, and artfully made, “Eye in the Sky” is an absolute must-watch that will leave you shuffling silently out of the cinema.