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When air warfare and the ability to drop bombs on the enemy became standard methods of battle, pilots often had a different feeling, even a disconnect, from the grunts on the ground. It was easier to kill the enemy combatants because the pilot didn’t engage with their foe face to face. However, that’s not where the disconnect stopped. It was also much easier to kill those who were not combatants, but who are, as we say today, collateral damage.
However, a new method of air warfare has somehow combined both the disconnected pilots in the air as well as the more engaged privates on parade. This new method of mass killing, drones, enable a pilot to drop bombs on the enemy from a safe distance; but because the drones come with cameras, one also tends to see everything almost first hand, as if the ones with their hands on the trigger are there, even seeing some of the victims close up before launching a missile.
That is one of the dilemmas that is at the heart of the new drama Eye in the Sky, a story about a group of people trying decide whether to lodge a missile at a house that not only contains terrorists high up on the most wanted list, but terrorists who are planning two suicide bombings. The problem: right outside the house is a little girl, blithely unaware, selling bread. So is the attack worth the death of the little girl?
It’s an interesting question and one that gets debated from all sides here. In fact, one can’t say the movie is exactly a realistic look at the issue of drone warfare because the plot has been manipulated not so much for a documentary or realistic approach to the issue, but to make sure that all the arguments can be made so that the audience can then pro and con everything after the movie is over and done with.
And the writer Guy Hibbert and the director Gavin Hood (who also plays Lt. Colonel Ed Walsh) do a very good job of juggling the believability of the situation with the desire to cover all the bases. They don’t completely hide their tracks, but the movie really does grab you after awhile until you find yourself both emotionally engaged in the story while also weighing everyone’s arguments.
The debate is basically split three ways. The military who can’t make a decision on their own (they have to get permission from the government), but who make their decisions not on morality so much as what needs to be done to win the war (one little girl’s death is desirable over the possibility of the death of hundreds from a terrorist attack); the human factor is unimportant to them.
The politicians who make their decisions based on polls and whether they can be held accountable for their actions, both legally and in the next election; they also don’t take the human factor into consideration.
In the end, it’s up to the two grunts, the two soldiers who have to pull the trigger, to look at it from the perspective of right and wrong and insist that a decision be based on morality as much as is possible.
And out of these three conflicts, the movie generates a lot of suspense and entertainment for the audience.
I had mixed feelings about the message the movie delivers. For me, the film comes down on the side of the military whose main problem is that they can’t act on their own, but have to have civilian permission to do anything; the “If only these bean counters who only look at poll numbers would get out of the way, we could win this war” type thing. At the same time, though I think the military was correct in their decision, they were so cold, calculating and brutal, they scared the hell out of me. After seeing the movie, I was thankful they had to answer to the government, even if the government was more interested in whether they could be held accountable than making the best decision in the long run.
The least believable through line is that of the soldiers who have to actually pull the trigger. They end up basically extorting everyone, no matter how high up or connected, forcing them to explore every possibility of finding a way to spare this little girl’s life. I like what they did, and apparently they didn’t do anything they weren’t allowed legally to do, but it’s also a rather romanticized view of such characters. Even if you believe that would hesitate to activate a missile (I didn’t), they also end up getting a pat on the back from their commanding officer when instead they would more probably be told that they will never do drone strikes again. As I said, I like what they did, but in a war, you can’t have people going rogue like these characters do.
Helen Mirren is the Colonel in charge of the mission; she tends to milk her role at times, but she’s marvelous as usual. However, the best performance is given by Alan Rickman as her superior, full of frustration, not just at the situation and the government idiots around him, but at even being in the situation in the first place (there’s something about Rickman and self-loathing that is a perfect fit). Aaron Paul does a nice low key (or lower key than in Breaking Bad) performance as the one with his finger on the trigger. And Barkhad Abdi, the incredible find of the movie Captain Phillips, is an agent on the ground who figures out a way to get the little girl away from danger…but can he do it in time?
In 2014, a movie on the same subject matter, Good Kill, was released. It starred Ethan Hawke as the grunt. It’s a less morally ambiguous movie; it’s clear whose side you are supposed to be on, but I think it was more effective since it was more character driven and I felt it didn’t call so much attention to what it was trying to say.