Most of Gavin Hood’s films (including Academy Award-winning Tsotsi and The Rendition) seek to explore the greys between good and evil. Hood has talked about being attracted to X Men Origins: The Wolverine, another film directed by him, for the same reason. In Eye in the Sky — with two Americans in the air piloting a drone, British spy officers tracking top terrorists in a house in Nairobi, and Kenyan special forces putting lives at risk on the ground — he builds his case more slowly. And then almost takes you by surprise at how persuasive that case is, about the choices to be made and the price to be paid.
Mirren plays Colonel Powell, who has been tracking a British convert and her husband, who are accused of several terror attacks, for six years. Identifying them positively in a run-down house in a dusty part of Nairobi is the closest Powell has come to them. Her allies include the American pilots (their commander played by Hood himself, in a brief role) and the Kenyan forces. A footsoldier of the Kenyans, Farah (Abdi, who is as good here as he was in his Oscar-nominated role in Captain Phillips) has managed to send in a camera designed as a beetle into the house and captured on camera two bombers getting dressed for a suicide mission.
Powell wants to order a strike immediately. Her boss, Lt Gen Benson (Rickman), sitting at the British cabinet offices with two ministers and the attorney general, seeks a clearance. Each keeps referring the decision up, as the elected men in the room weigh the legal and political implications, and the defined “rules of engagement”, of killing at least two British citizens and an American, who are in that Nairobi house. The UK foreign secretary is caught in the midst of a bad food poisoning case in Singapore, the US Secretary of State is sought out during an exuberantly jovial ping-pong round in Beijing.
By then the film has introduced its harrowing twist in the tale. Right next to that Nairobi house stays a girl Aliah (Takow), who in one evocative image caught by the drone is playing with a hoopla in a robe that covers her from head to toe. If she stays within her house compound, she will be spared in the strike. However, this precise moment she is selling the bread her mother makes, right next to the boundary wall of the house with the terrorists. There are quite a few bread pieces to go still, and the girl won’t move.
Farah buys out her entire stock to have her leave, but has to drop it and run when confronted by Somalian militia.
At first, it seems the film, written by Guy Hibbert, is clearly showing up the politicians for wavering over the fate of the girl, and for the military being more clear-eyed about these matters. The icy Rickman, with the cutting inflexion he puts on the word “minister”, and the icier Mirren barely disguise their contempt at the dilly-dallying.
“Military decisions must not be decided by political committees,” Benson stresses. Powell looks at the estimate of the collateral damage (45 per cent “acceptable”, anything above that not), and says that the fact that one should go ahead with the strike was obvious to anyone apart from “those trying to avoid making a decision”.
Meanwhile, the two drone pilots (including Paul) battle their emotions at having to eventually drop the bomb.
In a film of this kind, there are no geopolitical niceties, no talk even prefunctory of justice. However, if it makes a strong case to not dismiss the drone attacks as clinical, heartless strikes — “Never tell a soldier that he does not know the cost of war,” says Benson — it also leaves you crying for that little girl.
It may be fought from the sky, but war here feels pretty close.
Directed by Gavin Hood
Starring Helen Mirren, Alan Rickman, Aaron Paul, Aisha Takow, Barkhad Abdi
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