If you could save the lives of hundreds of people who will perish in a terrorist attack, but by doing so, take the life of an innocent little girl, would you do it?
That’s basically the question asked in EYE IN THE SKY (2016) a taut thriller in which the powers that be wrestle with this exact dilemma.
Colonel Katherine Powell (Helen Mirren) is coordinating a mission via drone cameras to locate members of an elusive terrorist cell in Kenya. Piloting the drones in the air are two American pilots, Steve Watts (Aaron Paul) and Carrie Gershon (Phoebe Fox). Powell also has a man on the ground Jama Farah (Barkhad Abdi) who controls a smaller drone which is able to take interior pictures of the compound. It’s this drone that not only locates the terrorists but reveals that they are about to conduct a suicide mission. Suddenly, the “capture” mission becomes a “kill” mission.
To complicate matters, a nine year-old girl sits out front of the compound selling bread for her family. As a result, pilot Steve Watts requests that Colonel Powell verify with her superiors that they have the clearance to conduct a mission that will cause lethal collateral damage.
What follows is an oftentimes terse study in diplomacy, politics, and military positioning as the various powers-that-be wrestle with the decision of just who will be the one to give the official green light to a mission that will no doubt kill an innocent little girl. And it’s all decided upon from the relative comfort and safety of situation rooms across the globe, miles upon miles away from the action.
This would all be terribly disturbing if it wasn’t so contrived. I had difficulty wrapping my head around the notion that a government worth its salt would even consider letting a terrorist group armed with suicide bombs walk away, if the collateral damage was simply one life. It’s a great essay question for a philosophy class, but as a plot in a movie, it wasn’t convincing.
Still, the story put forth in EYE IN THE SKY is timely and relevant. It’s just not always believable. It asks important questions in this day and age where warfare can be conducted by drones. And the screenplay by Guy Hibbert does create three-dimensional characters who struggle with the dilemma they face.
Of course, the high caliber of actors in this one also helps.
Helen Mirren is superb as Colonel Katherine Powell. Her take on the situation is simple: the terrorists must be taken out. The innocent girl’s inevitable death must be accepted. If not, they will have the blood of many more innocent victims on their hands if they let the terrorists escape.
Both Aaron Paul and Phoebe Fox are equally effective as the pilots who want no part of killing an innocent girl. Paul, who was phenomenal on TV’s BREAKING BAD as Jesse Pinkman, has been excellent in every film I’ve seen him in since. I hope he continues to land film roles and that they grow in prominence. Here, his Steve Watts just wants to do the right thing, and Paul is excellent showing Watts’ anguish when it becomes clear he’s going to have to do something he doesn’t want to do.
Phoebe Fox, who I enjoyed a lot in the horror sequel THE WOMAN IN BLACK 2: ANGEL OF DEATH (2014) is equally as good as fellow pilot Carrie Gershon, as she shares Watts’ frustrations.
Alan Rickman, in his last live action film role [he lends his voice to the upcoming ALICE THROUGH THE LOOKING GLASS (2016)] plays Lieutenant General Frank Benson, a military officer who tries to see both sides of the coin but ultimately sides with Mirren’s Colonel Powell. Rickman also enjoys one of the best bits in the movie, a brief speech near the end where he scolds a diplomat for questioning a soldier’s understanding of the price of warfare. It’s a great moment.
Rickman, who passed away in January, looks pale and tired here. Perhaps he was supposed to look this way for the role, but I couldn’t help but think while watching him on screen that he didn’t look healthy.
The movie is dedicated to Rickman’s memory.
Barkhad Abdi, who was memorable as the head pirate in CAPTAIN PHILIPS (2013), is nearly as good here as Jama Farah, the agent on the ground flying the miniature drone, who later risks his life in a futile attempt to buy the little girl’s bread so she can get clear of the area, in one of the film’s more suspenseful sequences.
EYE IN THE SKY was directed by Gavin Hood, who also appears in the film as Aaron Paul’s superior officer Lt. Colonel Ed Walsh, and he’s actually very good in these few scenes. He’s not bad as the director either. Hood directed the superhero film X-MEN ORIGINS: WOLVERINE (2009), a film that most X-Men fans hated, but I really liked.
That being said, EYE IN THE SKY is not a phenomenal movie, nor does Hood hit a homerun with it. The pacing is somewhat slow, and it takes a while to get going. More importantly, its main moral dilemma, whether or not to spare the girl’s life, comes off as a fake hypothetical situation. Had we been talking about hundreds of lives potentially lost due to collateral damage, then that might have been more believable.
Still, the actors here do such a good job bringing this situation to life, that I found myself looking past this flaw and going along with the story.
The more relevant topic this film examines is warfare conducted from the comfort and safety of war rooms miles away from the action, but even this theme is not handled crisply. The movie seems to be implying that this kind of warfare— using drones— is too easy and will lead to generals making ill-fated decisions because they don’t have to worry about the lives of their soldiers on the ground. However, in this movie, the folks giving the orders are more cautious than if they had soldiers on the ground.
All this being said, EYE IN THE SKY does have some fine moments. The scene where Barkhad Abdi’s agent on the ground attempts to buy the little girl’s bread to get her away from the missile strike is extremely suspenseful and one of the more exciting scenes in the film.
And every time Alan Rickman is on screen the film seems to become that much more compelling.
EYE IN THE SKY is an inconsistent movie, but it builds as it goes along and finishes strong, ending with an emphatic exclamation point. And with its talented cast, it overcomes its contrivances to the point where it’s ultimately worth your while.