Eye In The Sky
10 years ago, writer/actor/director Gavin Hood won an Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film for Tsotsi, a well-intentioned examination of poverty & race in apartheid South Africa that teetered on the edge of mawkishness throughout its 94-minute running time. Since then, Hood’s successes have come in the science fiction genre but he turns here to a more serious subject; the ethical/moral dimensions of drone warfare and the heavy responsibility of those responsible for employing such frightening weaponry in asymmetrical terrorist operations.
Helen Mirren heads a largely English/Scottish cast featuring Alan Rickman and Jeremy Northam in examining the roles played by British & American political, legal and military authorities in determining the conditions under which missile strikes are justified when targeting terrorists in a country not formerly at war with The West.
Mirren plays a British colonel responsible for tracking and eliminating a wing of al-Qaeda that’s using Kenya as a safe haven for recruiting and arming suicide bombers. Employing airborne surveillance in cooperation with U.S. drone strike missiles, Mirren is required to obtain advance permission for an attack from a select group of British/American officials working under written principals of engagement approved by both countries. When the colonel’s team tracks a trio of highly sought-after members the organization operating openly in one of Nairobi’s poorest neighborhoods, Mirren seeks permission from her civilian superiors to destroy a home where the targets have gathered to equip, film and deploy a pair of young suicide bombers - - despite the high probability that nearby civilians deaths will also occur.
Hood does a quite credible job in the first half of the movie exploring the delicate (and often buck-passing) process of moving from military request to political approval, but does the director unfairly load his argument by focusing on a single girl sent to sell her mother’s homemade bread at a stand adjacent to the targeted house? This device puts the issue of human “collateral damage” to emotional, story-telling use while simultaneously stacking the emotional deck against those intent on eliminating a certain threat against other innocent individuals who’ll die or be grievously injured at the hands of the newly armed bombers.
Screenwriter Cory Hibbert’s dialogue makes the case for both the pro and con positions on the issue, but he fails to address the fundamental issue of whether the fact that the decision is asymmetrical makes any difference in the outcome. If a machine gun attack on the house by a Special Forces team would be as effective achieving the objective even if it also carried an equal possibility of innocent fatalities, would the issue be seen differently? Does the fact that an attack of that type would then be subject to immediate retaliation make a difference? Is an attack by robotically controlled weapons morally inferior to one involving human combatants? Hood’s Anglos are conscientious in the process of making their decision, but Eye In The Sky seems to suggest that the mere use of the technology they possess is explicitly suspect.
Hood’s insistence of an exaggerated focus on a single innocent child makes for a movie that takes too long to reach its climax, although Eye’s denouement is resolutely even-handed in concluding that there are no winners involved in the outcome. The cast is largely effective in various understated roles and the film’s South African locations lend a special aura of authenticity to the storyline. If the director’s cinematic heart is worn a bit too conspicuously on his sleeve, it doesn’t detract from a gripping story involving one of the most troubling aspects of the global “war on terror”.
The Verdict? A timely subject whose exciting plot tips the scales a tad too heavy-handedly in the pursuit of its subject matter.
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