When is it OK to kill a nine-year-old girl?
It’s a horrific thought. And you’re probably thinking, “Well, NEVER, of course.” But Gavin Hood’s Eye in the Sky doesn’t let its audience off that easy. We meet the young, cute Alia (Alicia Takow) at the start of the film as she’s practicing the hula-hoop outside her family’s house in Nairobi. We then learn that two of the world’s most wanted terrorists—including a British citizen that Colonel Katherine Powell (Helen Mirren) has been tracking for six years— are in a nearby compound helping Somalis strap on explosive-laden vests for an imminent suicide mission. What Powell and the British military (with assistance from their US allies) originally planned as a capture mission quickly turns into a kill order.
But just before Steve (Aaron Paul), a drone pilot in Nevada, presses the button to release a Hellfire missile that will wipe out the terrorist compound, little Alia walks into the “kill zone” and sets up a stand to sell bread. It’s not spoiling anything to say that Steve refuses to fire the drone missile after first noticing the girl, and that’s because the majority of Eye in the Sky follows its characters as they try to convince each other—and themselves—what the best plan of action is now that an innocent child’s life might be ended by their decision.
Mirren does an excellent job (surprise, surprise) of portraying the tough-as-nails Powell, who never once wavers from her belief that Alia’s life is a small price to pay for taking out the terrorists and preventing a suicide attack that could kill hundreds. On the opposite side of the spectrum is an advisor (Monica Dolan) who argues that it’s better to let terrorists kill people than face the PR nightmare that would result in the British government being directly responsible for one girl’s death. Compelling arguments are made for and against the strike . . . all while time is running out before the bombers leave the compound and the opportunity to stop them is lost.
On the ground in Kenya is a local operative, Jama (Barkhad Abdi), who uses some pretty amazing spy gadgetry to get “eyes” into the terrorist compound. The cinematography (by Haris Zambarloukos) during those segments is especially memorable. Later, Jama is charged with attempting to lure Alia out of the kill zone without blowing his cover. The whole film is tense from start to finish, but I was so stressed out during the scenes with Alia that I could barely look at the screen.
Trying to bring the group of political, legal and military advisors spread across four continents to a decision is Lieutenant General Frank Benson (the late Alan Rickman, in his final on-screen role). I’ll admit that seeing Rickman on the big screen took me out of the movie for a moment; I’m a huge fan of his, and, therefore it was simultaneously exciting and heartbreaking to see him in a new role while knowing we’ll never enjoy that experience again. But he is perfect as Benson, showing both subtle and not-so-subtle signs of exasperation and worry as he attempts to drive the far-flung team to action. Eye in the Sky is one of those films where you’ll start laughing at something a character says or does and then immediately remember the stakes and feel guilty for even smiling. And I think Hood did that on purpose—to drive home the point that while someone like Benson is rolling his eyes at others who don’t have the guts to make a decision, and lawyers are debating the fallout of the strike being caught on video and posted to YouTube, and British and American leaders are making grave decisions while on the toilet or in the middle of a Ping-Pong tournament, innocent people’s lives are at stake.
I’ll say no more about the group’s back-and-forth, what they ultimately decide, or whether everyone is on board. But I will say that Guy Hibbert—who wrote the prescient script in 2008—masterfully covers all sides of the ethical, political and legal debate without actually taking a side, leaving it to viewers to make up their own minds on what’s right. He also captures the bureaucratic rigmarole and responsibility-avoidance that threatens to derail the entire operation, which I felt was especially realistic. Eye in the Sky will leave you frustrated and angry, but that’s probably a good thing.
The Bottom-Line? Eye in the Sky isn’t your typical war movie. It doesn’t take a side in the ethical debate on drone strikes, but rather lays out all of the complicated factors (and people) that will affect innocent lives thousands of miles away. Between its stellar cast, tense storytelling and unshakeable sequences, it’s a film you won’t soon forget.
Cast: Helen Mirren (Colonel Katherine Powell), Aaron Paul (Steve Watts), Alan Rickman (Lieutenant General Frank Benson), Barkhad Abdi (Jama Farah)
Credits: Directed by Gavin Hood; written by Guy Hibbert
Studio: Bleecker Street
Run Time: 1 hour 42 minutes
Erika Olson © March 18, 2016