One thought kept repeating in my mind over and over again while watching Eye in the Sky: criticism, while important, is incredibly easy. Sitting back and critiquing the decisions or work of another person is virtually always done from a position of security. Arguments made by critics should be made and received with the understanding that sitting outside of a particular situation and passing judgment is a completely different exercise than being in the middle of that situation, having to make difficult decisions with actual stakes behind them, bearing responsibility for outcomes that can actually affect any number of people. This is certainly applicable to the relationship between film critic and filmmaker; it’s also one of the ideas running throughout this movie.
The film centers on a decision surrounding a drone strike. This is one of those hot button issues that generate a lot of opinions, but this is a story that puts us in the rooms with the people who are in the position to make these types of life-or-death decisions. The first clever conceit that is apparent in the superb screenplay by Guy Hibbert is to make it an ensemble film, a depiction of the fact that each decision to deploy a drone strike is indeed a long series of decisions, made by a large number of different people at different levels of legal, military, and government status.
The story follows a British-led operation spearheaded by Colonel Powell (Helen Mirren) meant to capture a suspected British-born terrorist in Nairobi. When surveillance reveals a suicide attack is imminent, Powell calls for a hellfire strike on the terror group’s headquarters, but the process to authorize such a strike proves complicated, exponentially so when a young girl enters into the collateral damage zone.
The result is a tremendous mix of a morality play and a comedy of errors, 12 Angry Men meets Dr. Strangelove. On one hand, there’s American drone operator Steve Watts, played by Aaron Paul. Anyone who’s seen Breaking Bad is familiar with Paul’s capacity for expressing the most heart-wrenching anguish over life-and-death moral quandaries—he’s devastating here again.
On the other hand, there’s UK Foreign Secretary James Willett, played by Iain Glen, who is forced into the middle of this dilemma while suffering through a nasty bit of food poisoning, like something out of an Armando Iannucci series, getting briefed on the situation from the bathroom. The levity of Glen’s role (as well as the US Foreign Secretary who is briefly shown playing table tennis in China and is baffled by the British hesitation to fire missiles) offers some brief gallows humor to relieve what is otherwise an intense narrative.
In addition to playing within these genres, this is also a ticking time bomb narrative, which provides an opportunity for some dynamic crosscutting sequences that play with the broad scope of this story. We get a glimpse of the ground level action, with Barkhad Abdi providing high-tech surveillance for those watching on screens, and among those watching on screens we get the fictional equivalent of the room in which that famous photo of the Bin Laden raid was taken—the type of photograph that one would assume provided visual inspiration for this type of scene on some level. In the upstairs level, far removed from the action, bureaucrats take turns offering arguments for and against a strike, each rationalizing their arguments from different perspectives and principles.
Alan Rickman gives a stoic performance as the military general advising in favor of the strike, while others, such as the attorney general, induce eye-rolls from the audience as they keep trying to pass the responsibility for the decision on to one another. It seems reasonable to feel conflicted about it all; decisions like this with such dire implications ought to be made with checks and balances providing necessary deliberation, but also require a timely decision. This conflictedness is certainly comfortable from a position of removal, and makes for some bemused chuckles and gasps of disapproval, but that’s a luxury these characters can’t afford in the moment, which makes the drama here so captivating.
There’s some delicious irony in the war room’s concern with the optics of the situation when we, in the audience, are watching them deliberate over this operation, and judging them for some of their petty motivations. At the same time, and to the film’s credit, there’s sympathy to be had for every perspective represented. We feel for Rickman’s general, who has experience with putting live at risk and understands the necessity of quick action. We feel for Mirren’s colonel, who has devoted years of her life to a mission to find a dangerous individual, and is now hamstrung. And we feel for Paul’s drone operator, bearing perhaps the most direct responsibility for pushing the button to deploy the deadly weapon.
It’s terrific ensemble work all around, highlighted by carefully juxtaposed close shots emphasizing the eyes, and the internal struggles, of each character involved. From our all-seeing perspective watching Eye in the Sky, the audience is given plenty of distinct perspectives to consider when making judgments on undertakings of this magnitude.
Eye in the Sky presents a talented ensemble of differing perspectives on the controversial use of drone missiles, forcing us to confront our own feelings about the complicated implications of modern warfare.