Eye in the Sky is a moral dilemma wrapped up in a political spy thriller.
The dilemma is whether the Americans and the British should fire a drone missile at a group of terrorists preparing for a suicide bomb mission. If they fire, there is a high probability of killing not only the terrorists, but also a young girl selling bread on the street. If they do not fire, there is a possibility of a much higher death toll if the bomb is ignited in the market or shopping centre.
Aisha Takow plays Alia, a small girl selling bread outside the house where the terrorists are preparing their attack. Part of the debate centres on the possibility of her being killed by the missile. Such is the ruthless logic of such operations that a 45% chance of her being killed is considered acceptable.
Colonel Katherine Powell (Helen Mirren) watches the house she is targeting.
The technology is such that everyone can see how many loaves of bread Alia still has left to sell. A small short-range beetle drone can take photos inside the house where the suicide bomber is being armed
The drama of the film is developed in two ways. The first centres on how the decision is made to fire the missile. The military and political implications of the decision are thrashed out by Lieutenant General Frank Benson (Alan Rickman) and a group of politicians: Attorney General George Mathewson (Richard McCabe), Brian Woodale (Jeremy Northam ) and British Foreign Secretary James Willett (Iain Glen) who are sitting in an office in London watching the mission unfold with live footage from the drone.
At the end of the telephone, in the operation centre is military intelligence officer Colonel Katherine Powell, (Helen Mirren) who has been tracking the terrorists for six years and now has them firmly in the sights of her drone-bourne Tomahawk missile.
She is desperately keen to launch the missile.
The tension in the film is also developed around the fate of Alia, whose bread stall is within the killing zone. It is clear that the terrorists are preparing to leave the house and the opportunity to kill them will be lost if the missile is not fired quickly. What is not clear is how long it will be before Alia sells all her bread and moves out of danger. Tension is heightened by the efforts of a Kenyan undercover agent, Jama Farah (Barked Abdi), who was in the street outside the house, to buy the bread.
As pressure builds to launch the missile, the politicians prevaricate and the decision bounces between Singapore, Beijing and Washington. In Beijing, the Foreign Secretary is playing table tennis with the Chinese national champion and really cannot be bothered making a decision. In Washington, the Americans have no qualms at all. The US citizen inside the house forfeited all rights when he joined the Al-Shabaab extremists.
The film also lays to rest the myth that drone warfare is impersonal. The pilot of the drone is USAF drone pilot 2nd Lieutenant Steve Watts (Aaron Paul).
He can see Alia playing with her hoola-hoop in her backyard before she goes out to sell the bread. She is a very human face of the the collateral damage that the missile will inflict.
The film was particularly well made.
The storyline is tight and the acting is superb, although you suspect that neither Alan Rickman nor Helen Mirrem would have found their rather one-dimensional roles particularly demanding.
Helen Mirren’s Colonel Katherine Powell is a driven and demanding intelligence officer. Her only redeeming and humanising feature is that her husband snores. Rickman’s Lieutenant General Frank Benson is world and war weary, particularly when it comes to dealing with politicians. His only redeeming and humanising feature is that he is concerned that he has bought the wrong doll for his granddaughter’s birthday. If he sees any irony between his concern to buy the right doll and the fate of a small Somalian girl, he does not show it.
He is given the final lines, but not the final scene in the film when he says, “Never accuse a soldier of not knowing the cost of war.” But it is the final scene that shows what that cost really is.