By Preston Wilder
Drones are the new nukes. Back in the 60s, Fail-Safe laid bare the war-room tensions as politicians argued over how to prevent – or manage – a nuclear strike. (Dr. Strangelove played the same scenario for laughs.) 50 years later we have Eye in the Sky, similarly talky, intense and high-minded, though the one-room setting of Fail-Safe is now spread out – as befits a globalised world – across four continents. Al-Shabaab extremists gather in a house in Kenya; the British top brass are watching them in London, ready to strike – though the actual pilot of the surveillance drone, a soldier named Watts (Aaron Paul), is an American in Las Vegas. Watts can pull the trigger at any time, blowing up the house and all inside it. But it’s not that simple.
For a start, this is not a ‘kill’ mission; Watts is only supposed to be the “eye in the sky” as the Brits swoop in to arrest a radicalised British woman and bring her back to stand trial. Then there’s the issue of collateral damage. Colonel Powell (Helen Mirren), who’s been after this terrorist for six years, is keen to finish the job; so is General Benson (Alan Rickman), who’s watching events unfold from Whitehall with members of the Cabinet. The politicians are more circumspect, worried about political fallout. “We have to know that we’re legally in the clear,” says a Minister (Jeremy Northam), visibly sweating. Then a little girl wanders into the kill zone, making the moral calculus even more intractable.
That’s not all, however. The script throws in details that may seem irrelevant, but are actually crucial. Benson is buying a doll for (presumably) his granddaughter, and seems to have bought the wrong one: he’s got her a ‘Time to Sleep’ doll, when it should’ve been a ‘Baby Moves’. Watts has a chat with his new colleague, a callow young girl from Ohio, and explains that he joined the Air Force because he has student debt and it seemed like a solid career. The Foreign Secretary, tracked down at an arms fair in Singapore, has been laid low by some bad prawns, and gets briefed on the drone strike in between trips to the toilet. The touch isn’t subtle, but the point is clear: despite our omniscient technology we’re still human beings, with human desires and weaknesses.
Technology is often a fetish, e.g. in the Jason Bourne franchise. Eye in the Sky goes further, noting that our gleaming array of screens, gadgets and high-tech weapons still comes with moral questions on how to wield them. The film is an exercise in sustained tension, cutting between the various human actors in this vast apparatus, showing the process involved in raining death on some poor African city. No-one wants to take that decision; most would rather “refer it up”, even when it’s clear that the terrorists are planning a suicide bombing. Rules of engagement, backed up by data analysis, offer a bureaucratic form of solace: a 65 per cent chance of the innocent little girl being killed in the blast is too much, but 45 per cent might be okay. Can we really kill a child in cold blood, though, even if it means saving the lives of other, hypothetical ones? Besides, as someone points out, “if Al-Shabaab kill 80 people, we win the propaganda war”.
Hard to say if the film is accurate – but it does depict safeguards being followed and life-and-death decisions not taken lightly, at least by the British. (The Americans are shown to be more gung-ho, and it’s hard not to wonder – perhaps unfairly – if a President Trump would bother with such moral niceties.) The process of people trying to argue their way to the right answer is inherently fascinating, like a courtroom drama, and the bits where human frailty clogs up the machine are almost touching – as when Watts decides he’s unable to pull the trigger, not with the child clearly visible on the screen right in front of him, and the callow young girl from Ohio whispers: “Well done”.
The only problem, which becomes more pronounced as the film goes on, is that drones aren’t really nukes. Fail-Safe dealt with nuclear apocalypse – the end of the world was at stake – whereas Eye in the Sky can seem slightly overbaked for its relatively minor dilemma. The film might’ve worked better as a one-hour TV play; indeed, as the plot stretches out and the buck is repeatedly passed, you may find yourself actively longing for the drone to strike already – but maybe that’s not really a problem, making us feel the visceral attraction of violence as a quick solution to a Gordian knot. Flaws and all, the film is valuable. When historians of the future try to make sense of our early-21st-century moment, this thoughtful, fair-minded drama will be on the viewing list.
DIRECTED BY Gavin Hood
STARRING Helen Mirren, Aaron Paul, Alan Rickman
UK 2016 102 mins