Review: Eye in the Sky

Taylor Downing reviews a classic war movie.

The first experiments with what became known as Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) took place in the Second World War but got nowhere. There were plenty of pilots flying plenty of conventional aircraft, so there was no real need to develop UAV technology.

By the end of the war, the Luftwaffe were so desperately short of trained pilots that the Germans had resorted instead to, for instance, unmanned jet-propelled cruise missiles (the V-1) and ballistic rocket missiles (the V-2).

It was not until the 1970s, however, that the top-secret Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) in the US began to develop prototype UAVs for surveillance. They were primitive devices, only capable of carrying small loads, but some of them were successfully used by the Israelis in the 1973 Yom Kippur War. The next stage of development was also led by Israel, which began to use UAVs not only for surveillance but as part of electronic warfare and as decoys to distract enemy anti-aircraft fire from manned aircraft.

The Gulf War of 1991 has been called ‘the first UAV war’. According to later reports, ‘at least one UAV was airborne at all times during Desert Storm’. In the next two decades, UAVs – now popularly known as ‘drones’ – developed rapidly. A new generation of Reaper or Predator drones took the technology from surveillance to a hunter-killer role.

The MQ-9 Reaper could carry up to four Hellfire or Sidewinder missiles for 14 hours at 50,000ft. They are flown by a crew consisting of a pilot, a sensor operator, and an intelligence coordinator, and they became central weapons in the American-led War on Terror after the attacks of 11 September 2001.

Over the years, drone attacks have become notorious. In November 2008, a US strike supposedly on the Taliban near Kandahar, Afghanistan, killed 37 civilians at a wedding party. In 2014, 12 civilians were killed en route to a wedding in Yemen’s al-Baydah province.

By June 2015, it had been estimated that the death toll of US drone strikes had exceeded 6,000 in attacks in Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia, Iraq, Libya, Syria, and Afghanistan. A group of 45 former US military personnel publicly appealed to US drone pilots to refuse to carry out further deadly missions that risked killing innocent civilians.

It was in this context that Guy Hibbert developed a script about the morality of drone warfare for BBC Films. Hibbert had won several awards for his 2009 Irish film Five Minutes of Heaven (directed by Oliver Hirschbiegel), dealing with issues of political violence and revenge. He was also interested in the mental health of the characters his films portrayed.

But Hibbert’s script never got made by BBC Films, and the project ended up with Entertainment One, usually known as eOne. They brought in the South African Gavin Hood to direct. Hood was fascinated by the blurring of lines between good and evil in some of his previous movies like Tsotsi (2005), for which he won an Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film. In 2009’s X-Men Origins: Wolverine (starring Hugh Jackman), he turned a Marvel Comics superhero into a more nuanced character who recognises his own capacity for evil.

Although drone warfare is a relatively new feature of warfare, several films have depicted it in the last few years. The question for Eye in the Sky was that, with Guy Hibbert’s script and Gavin Hood’s direction, the film was bound to be powerful, reflective, and probably provocative. But could it attract audiences to a debate about the ethics of war?

The power of Entertainment One to bring in talent soon became apparent, as Colin Firth came on board, not to act but as a producer through his production company Raindog Films. Within a couple of months, Helen Mirren, Aaron Paul, and Alan Rickman had joined the cast, and filming began outside Cape Town, South Africa, in September 2014. It would be Rickman’s last movie, as he died of cancer a few months after shooting was complete.

International operation

The film tells the story of a mission led by Colonel Powell (a steely Helen Mirren) from a bunker at Northwood, just outside London. The mission is to identify a series of Al-Shabaab terrorists who have been tracked down to a building in Eastleigh, in the suburbs of Nairobi.

It is an international operation involving a drone crew based at Creech Air Force Base in Nevada, facial-image analysts at the Joint Intelligence Center at Pearl Harbor in Hawaii, a Kenyan Special Forces unit standing-by in Nairobi, and two local agents on the ground in Eastleigh.

Supervising the mission is a specially convened COBRA meeting in Whitehall, at which General Benson, the Deputy Chief of the Defence Staff (Alan Rickman), is advising the Minister of State in the Foreign Office (Jeremy Northam), the Attorney General (Richard McCabe), and an adviser on African affairs (Monica Dolan).

Everyone is watching real-time images on their computer screens from a Reaper drone 20,000ft above Nairobi and from tiny spy cameras operated from the ground: first a bird-cam and then a mini-camera inside a sort of dragonfly, known as an insectothopter, that is flown into the house where the terrorists are gathering.

Everyone who is watching events unfold wants to be part of the decision-making about what to do next. This is the first lesson from the movie. The military are no longer in control of the digital battlefield. Lawyers and the military’s political masters all have an input into what should happen.

The mission begins purely as an observation exercise preceding a capture. When the terrorists are positively identified, the Kenyan Special Forces are to go in and arrest them. Sure enough, two radicalised British subjects, Susan Danford and her husband, and an American Somali, are spotted in the building using facial-recognition technology. Between them, they represent the Second, Fourth, and Fifth most wanted terrorists in East Africa on the US Terror List.

But, during the course of the operation, the insectothopter picks up images of explosives being prepared for two suicide bombers who are seen being dressed in vests about to depart on a suicide mission. For General Benson, this transforms the mission from one of ‘capture’ to one of ‘kill’. The Reaper is armed with two Hellfire missiles and has the ability to hit the terrorist house with precision.

At the COBRA meeting, this raises great concern. The Attorney General says that under their rules of engagement, a mission can be changed, but the adviser for African affairs argues that Britain has never carried out an unannounced attack from the air on a friendly nation like Kenya, and that this is not the time to start.

She claims this is a political minefield, and the Minister of State decides that the decision whether or not to go ahead must be ‘referred up’ to his boss, the Foreign Secretary. He is in Singapore at a trade mission but is suffering from a bad stomach upset and, comically, has to take the call regarding the request while sitting on the loo.

Back in mission control at Northwood, Sergeant Saddiq (Babou Ceesay) carries out a damage assessment to predict the collateral damage, specifically the likelihood of fatalities within a few hundred yards of the house, known as the killing zone. And at Creech AFB the pilot of the drone Lieutenant Watts (Aaron Paul) and his rookie operator Air Force Woman Gershon (Phoebe Fox) prepare to launch their missile.

If the task was simply that of killing a group of terrorists, then the decision would be simple. However, the situation is transformed when a nine-year-old girl, Alia, arrives outside the terrorists’ house and sets up a stall to sell bread. We have met Alia at the beginning of the film. She is bright and is adored by her parents. She is sent to sell the bread because she is good at doing arithmetic when it comes to taking money and giving change. The presence of an innocent young girl within the killing zone now poses a major difficulty for those running the operation.

On the ground, a Kenyan agent Jama Farah (brilliantly portrayed by Barkhad Abdi) is instructed to go in and buy all the bread and get the girl away quickly. But he is spotted by Al-Shabaab soldiers and given chase. All of this is followed on computer screens by everyone watching. The young girl remains innocently selling her bread outside the terrorist base.

The pilot in Nevada has a conscience and demands that a reassessment of the collateral damage is carried out. The Foreign Secretary in Singapore says that he can no longer reach a decision and the US Secretary of State must rule whether or not to proceed. He is in China but is interrupted playing ping pong. He says that if the Brits have such wanted terrorists in their sights, they must go ahead immediately and kill them.

Meanwhile, the clock is ticking as the suicide bombers put on their explosive vests. The choice now becomes: is it better to go ahead and risk killing the young girl or to allow the suicide bombers to go out and potentially kill dozens of other innocent people in a shopping mall or wherever.

Again, the politicians argue. One says that if Al-Shabaab kills 80 people that is a propaganda victory for the West; if an Anglo-American military operation kills one innocent young girl, then it is a huge propaganda victory for Al-Shabaab. The Prime Minister has to be consulted, but he is just about to give a speech in Strasbourg.

Back in Northwood, a frustrated and angry Colonel Powell tells the Sergeant calculating the risk of fatalities within the killing zone to recalculate and to be sure that the predicted risk is only 45%, less than half, as this will be regarded as acceptable. The Sergeant obeys the orders of his senior commander and, with this prediction, the politicians agree to launch the missiles. With the young girl still sitting outside their target, the drone crew, with tears in their eyes, fire their missiles.

The relieved military announce that it is mission accomplished. But as the parents arrive to rush Alia to hospital, one of the politicians announces the whole operation is a ‘disgrace – all done from the safety of your chair’. General Benson erupts. He has seen first-hand the terrible aftermath of a suicide bomb attack and had to pick up body parts. ‘Never tell a soldier that he doesn’t know the cost of war’, he shouts at the politician.

Menacing atmosphere

The shooting of Eye in the Sky is taut and creates a mood of growing, terrifying menace. The use of very effective music helps to build the drama from the opening scene. And it raises a host of moral questions about the nature of drone warfare, the way wars are fought today, and issues of collateral damage.

The brilliance of Guy Hibbert’s script is that we see the moral questions from many different angles. There is no simple right and wrong in Eye in the Sky. Is the loss of the little girl’s life from an Anglo-American missile worse than the loss of dozens of lives from a terrorist suicide bomber? And who should ultimately make that decision?

The film shows what is now called the ‘kill chain’. It features the advice of legal experts who have to interpret the rules of engagement; politicians who constantly want to ‘refer upwards’; and, of course, the view of the military, who are simply focused on getting the job done and taking out a group of highly dangerous terrorists.

The movie brilliantly captures the very different worlds in which members of the ‘kill chain’ operate. The politicians are immersed in other business and can only give life-or-death decisions a few moments of their time. They view such decisions in terms of how easily they can justify them in public afterwards. The military commanders are single-minded and, in this story, Colonel Powell has been tracking the terrorist leaders for years and would go to any lengths to eliminate them. And the pilots who sit in a cabin in the Nevada desert have to pull the trigger and rain down death and destruction from the air. Then they go home at the end of their shift and have dinner with their family, like anyone after a busy day at the office.

Eye in the Sky is a brilliant movie, cleverly scripted to bring out all the moral dilemmas involved. It is superbly directed to create a mood of tension just as much in an air-conditioned cabin in Nevada as on the ground in a dusty Nairobi suburb. It is nuanced, intelligent, and generates real debate among viewers about the morality of today’s warfare. It is both tragic and absurd. But more than anything, it is a great edge-of-the-seat thriller of modern war. •.

Producers: Ged Doherty, Colin Firth, and David Lancaster. Director: Gavin Hood. Writer: Guy Hibbert. Music: Paul Hepker and Mark Kilian. Starring: Helen Mirren, Aaron Paul, Alan Rickman, and Barkhad Abdi. An Entertainment One production.
Images: Wikimedia Commons.