Late in Gavin Hood’s drone warfare consideration, Eye In the Sky, there comes a point where Colonel Katherine Powell (Helen Mirren) switches her previously commanding tone to one of pleading desperation while speaking to a computer engineer calculating the scope of collateral damage from a drone strike. Powell’s been through the ringer, smooth talking the entire chain of command of multiple governments trying to get the go-ahead to pull the trigger on known terrorists and running into a Kafka-esque labyrinth of bureaucratic red-tape.
Over and over, the engineer keeps repeating the same number, trying in vain to please his superior and hoping that his computer will magically change the number appearing on his display. It’s a crucial moment, and one that gets at the best parts of Hood’s flawed but insightful look into the tangled procedure and process of remote warfare.
Though drones have long been used as a symbol of war’s increasing detachment from agency, moral weight and the increased purview of modern surveillance, they’ve practically been commodified at this point — even becoming delivery systems for retail giants like Amazon. Hollywood’s dabbled in the conversation around drones, even arranging them in muddled tapestries of cyber-terrorism in films like Furious 7 or military fetishism like 13 Hours, but aside from possibly Andrew Niccol’s soggy, maudlin Good Kill, there’s been very few legitimate inquiries into the actual implementation of drones.
Eye In the Sky’s scenario is simple, but it opens itself up to both surprising cinematic possibilities and a sprawling internal narrative discussion about the pros and cons of following through on the group’s mission. On a covert recon operation, it’s discovered that that the targets are preparing for a suicide bombing, and a simple recon mission is changed to an assassination. The only problem is that the drone strike impact zone is in the proximity of an innocent young girl who happens to be selling bread next to the house.
From shot to shot, Hood skips entire continents, transitioning back and forth between a war room in England, a pilot capsule in the US, a remote command center and on the ground in Nairobi. That’s an unwieldy set of locations to juggle, and some characters certainly get short shrift (the usually scene-stealing Iain Glen’s most notable quality is that he has digestive issues), but Hood mostly makes things work, even using the various locations to amplify the suspense and leaving the fate of characters like a Nairobi-based spy (Barkhad Abdi, who completely owns the role) unspoken for long periods of time.
In each of the locations, every character inevitably has a telegraphed moral position about whether to bomb the target, but it becomes a much more fluid question than is expected given the pat set-up. It’s partly the credit of Hood (who finds an engaging cinematic viewpoint that manages to manipulate the medium of surveillance into a ticking clock and vise grip), but it’s the players who really sell this, especially Mirren, Alan Rickman and Paul.
Shorn of his usual dirtbag image, Paul plays the clean-cut Steve Watts, the hapless drone pilot whose given the unenviable job of pulling the trigger on the drone strike. And true to the scenario, he’s sweating the inevitable nightmares he’ll have after the dirty deed and challenging his superiors at every turn to delay the inevitable. He’s certainly the most typical character in a morality play like this, but this is Paul at his most refreshingly understated after howling roles in Triple 9 and Exodus: Gods and Kings.
As a lieutenant general who’s seen his share of bloodshed, Rickman’s character is more nuanced in his view of how to navigate the situation, shifting easily with the tide of the general conversation without feeling programatic. And suffused with the character’s quiet dignity and the real-life knowledge of Rickman’s passing, his dialogue feels nothing short of funereal.
But Mirren is the real revelation here as a woman who advocates for the necessity of sacrificing the few for the many. She could easily be a monster that many other films would set about vanquishing, but she isn’t someone to be converted. She’s a women with decades of military experience who’s taken on her own terms even if that pragmatism translates in ways that aren’t easily palatable.
But there’s plenty of little details that go a long way in building out the interior life of the characters on the ground. The least screen time is devoted to the actual lives of those affected, but there’s a strong unspoken undercurrent of what the atmosphere is like in Nairobi based on how men react to a young girl playing, or learning to read. They’re small windows into these character’s interior lives, but they still establish empathy on more than a symbolic level as they’re soon targets in the drone’s sights.
Eventually, Hood can’t avoid the chance to step up to the pulpit and offer a stance. But even as the film orchestrates its grandly emotional and proudly manipulative climax, it means nothing and everything. It’s just another day in the life of drone warfare. It’s the ultimate anti-climax.
Michael Snydel (@snydel) is a writer based in Chicago who has been obsessed with film and film reviews since he could read. For the first decade of his life, he could bizarrely tell you the rating of nearly film that came out. He now tries to devote his time to less pointless things. He writes regularly for The Film Stage and has written for Paste Magazine and The Dissolve (RIP).