Military thriller has political clout

by Tim Pompey
Eye in the Sky
Directed by: Gavin Hood
Starring: Helen Mirren, Aaron Paul, Alan Rickman
Rated: R for some violent images and language
1 hr. 42 min.

In a democracy, military commanders and politicians do not always see eye to eye. Dangerous decisions get argued over behind closed doors. Life and death kind of decisions, such as we find in this provocative thriller, Eye in the Sky.

There’s something primal about the film: the urge to kill your enemies versus the restraint to hold back. Director Gavin Hood sets up his characters and his audience to test those limits. He invites you to put yourself in the driver’s seat and ask what you would do.

As we learn, there aren’t always clear answers to military missions. Outcomes have to be measured, as we see in a test of wills between Colonel Katherine Powell (Helen Mirren), Lieutenant General Frank Benson (Alan Rickman), and U.S. Air Force drone pilot Steve Watts (Aaron Paul). The decision to fire a Hellcat missile into an Al Shabaab hideout in Nairobi, Kenya, comes down to calculations and percentages. Point here. Move the algorithms around. Argue some. Point there. Figure the collateral damage. Get it down to acceptable limits. Boom.

Hood sets up a compelling scenario. In a joint operation between British military commanders in England, Kenyan operatives in Nairobi, and American drone pilots in Las Vegas, the object is to capture some highly prized terrorists in a house outside of Nairobi. Just to be clear here, some of these terrorists happen to be British and American citizens.

It’s a capture mission that turns on a dime. The terrorists move to a different location, transforming the event from a capture-only to a kill decision. Using miniature drones (a bird and a beetle), the military brass see that the terrorists are assembling suicide vests. Images of bloody bodies and twisted metal scream in their head.

The arguments for and against firing a missile are wonky. It’s politics. You have to expect some of this. The American diplomats come off as callous, especially when the Secretary of State, on a goodwill mission in China, is called for his opinion. He tells them to simply blow them all to hell, then returns to playing ping pong with the Chinese.

But the twist in this is the fate of a small Kenyan girl who has been sent to sell bread at a table directly next to the terrorist hideout. When she arrives, everyone involved in the mission knows: Kill the terrorists, kill the girl. And that’s when Hood has you hooked. This mission has just gone from statistics to murdering children. As if to prod us, Hood seems to be asking: What would you do?

While this film doesn’t quite measure up to something as thought provoking as Fail-Safe, the stellar cast and the writing of Guy Hibbert keep the story moving. Alan Rickman is pure chill and Aaron Paul is the talent we knew he was when we watched Breaking Bad. Mirren sometimes comes off as desperate, but in reality, she is. She’s also smart. She knows her metrics and her politics.

You may wonder about the political discussions regarding the value of human life, but it’s always clear from Hood’s point of view that he wants you in the commander’s chair. The use of drone technology reinforces this. You see what they see. You decide as they decide. You have a silent place at the table. Pull the trigger: yes or no?

The conclusion does not shy away from the consequences of these decisions. In the end, when he is chastised by an associate for his choices, Rickman responds icily, “Never tell a soldier that he does not know the cost of war.”

Hood pushes us to consider some very disturbing issues about the human cost of a simple lens in the sky, especially when it catches a little girl selling bread. It’s not just fun and games anymore.