Movie: Eye in the Sky
Reviewer: Esosa Omo-Usoh
Terrorism (especially after the events of September 11) has always presented a moral, legal and political dilemma for those saddled with the responsibility of keeping it in check. The introduction of drones in the fight against terrorism exacerbates what is already a difficult dilemma. For terrorists, there are no moral, legal or political compunctions against their actions. However, for soldiers and politicians, the play field (or more appropriately; the killing field) is literally and literarily strewn with land mines that they have to navigate through.
This is the exact scenario posed by the storyline in Eye in the Sky. The movie opens with a multinational anti-terror operation in progress to capture A-list Al Shabaab terrorists holed up in a safe house in Nairobi, Kenya. The terrorists are suspected to include two British citizens and an American.
In 1994’s Speed, there’s a scene in which the late Dennis Hopper’s villain character, Howard Payne says to Keanu Reeves’ Jack Travern “Interactive TV, Jack. Wave of the future!” Well, this is 2016 and in Eye in the Sky, it is interactive warfare. Command and monitoring centres are strewn across London, Hawaii, Nevada and Kenya with aerial surveillance and ground intel provided by drones and remote controlled robot spy wares.
When footage from a mechanical insect spyware reveals that an imminent suicide terror attack is afoot, the mission quickly changes from capture to kill. This is when the nail-biting, teeth-chattering and sit-on-the-edge-of-your-seat drama starts. A capture mission is fraught with its own challenges. But a kill mission in a heavily populated civilian neighbourhood throws up a whole different kind of challenge, buck-passing and let-this-cup-pass-over-me complication.
From the British end, Dame Helen Mirren’s Colonel Powell has no hesitation in directing an American missile-equipped drone pilot based in Nevada to take out the safe house and put an end to the planned suicide terror attack. Her legal counsel advises she secure the green light for the kill mission from cabinet level superiors. While she finds support from Alan Rickman’s military general character, a civilian cabinet member feels that given the British and American citizenships of some of the targeted terrorists coupled with inevitable civilian collateral damage, getting a green light needed to be escalated to Foreign Secretary level.
The musical chairs of buck passing continues with the British Foreign Secretary, who whilst on a trade mission to Singapore is holed in a toilet suffering from a stomach upset, passing the buck to his American counterpart who, on a visit to China, is engaged in a table tennis match. The US Secretary of State okays the mission and promptly resumes his tennis game.
After scaling the legal and political hurdles and just as the drone pilot is about to press the trigger to release the missiles to take out the safe house, a moral hurdle springs up when a little girl sets up shop next to the safe house to sell bread.
Eye in the sky plays out like a legal, political and moral debate on the pros and cons of fighting terrorism with the use of drones and the collateral damage that inevitably attends it. The legal, political and moral dilemmas that envelope the actors on screen reach out and suck the viewer into the vortex.
You side with the soldiers who are more decisive in calling the shots and at same time, you cannot help but understand the hesitation on the part of the politicians. You empathise with the drone pilot’s attack of conscience when he sights the little girl setting up shop beside the safe house and ponder the value placed on human life by the very causal manner the US Secretary of State gives his consent to the kill mission and resumes his game of tennis. You understand the need for Helen Mirren’s Col. Powell to cook up, as it were, the risk assessment statistics for the kill strike but you wonder whether from the look he gave her, if her risk assessor is not being a tad too judgmental about her insistence given the lives that are stake. You ask yourself what would your answer be to the question : is it not preferable to lose the little girl and a few civilian causalities to the drone strike than for the 2 suicide bombers being prepped for an attack to succeed in killing thousands of people in their planned attack?
The poignancy of Eye in Sky is evident in the interplay between the seeming simplicity of the task before the multinational anti-terror squad and the complexity of the consequences that could and would attend the action they eventually take. Helen Mirren and Alan Rickman impressively portrayed the practical decisiveness of trained soldiers who are impervious to the sentiments favoured by politicians when lives are at stake.
In his stellar movie career, Alan Rickman had mastered the art of portraying characters who dismiss others with a condescending and superior air of intellectual nobility. In the final scene of Eye in the sky, in fitting response to a politician who tried to claim a moral high ground and question his humanity, he silenced her by delivering this memorable line in his inimitable baritone cadence “Never tell a soldier that he does not know the cost of war”.