Borrowing the words of Michael Hayden, we could have used a more “precise and effective application” of filmmaking resources.
In February of 2016, former C.I.A. director Michael Hayden claimed that drones offer “the most precise and effective application of firepower in the history of armed conflict.” According to his analysis, unmanned aerial weapons have cut short terrorist plots and decreased an already-high death toll. At press time, President Obama has authorized 506 drone strikes in Yemen, Pakistan and Somalia. These strikes have killed over three thousand suspected terrorists. They also have killed 391 civilians.
Screenwriter Guy Hibbert and director Gavin Hood (X-Men Origins: Wolverine, Ender’s Game) have taken advantage of this promising scenario for Eye in the Sky, a supposedly thrilling drama about the implementation of a deadly drone strike. Rather than handle this bureaucratically intricate, ethically fraught situation with the care and intelligence it deserves, they’ve given us an emotionally manipulative, structurally monotonous comment on foreign policy full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.
Helen Mirren stars as Colonel Katherine Powell, a British military officer charged with capturing a group of terrorists in Kenya. As appealing as this choice in casting sounds, The Queen’s talents go to waste, evidently hiding beneath that buttoned-up army uniform. She’s a stern woman, dedicated to the task at hand, but beyond that—nothing. She’s as empty of human feeling as the drones she’s trying to maneuver.
Working from a top secret location that looks eerily similar to a movie studio lot, Powell leads a team of anonymous men who stare at computers. In order to complete her mission, she’s connected to a slew of video feeds. The first belongs to Steve (Aaron Paul), a mild-mannered drone pilot who spends his entire day inside a concrete box. The next is for Lieutenant Frank (Alan Rickman), a perennially impatient man who sits in a fancy room with representatives from the British parliament. A third feed is for the drone and its cold, bird’s eye vision of the Kenyan slum where the terrorist meet. Here lies one of the primary issues with the Eye in the Sky, and perhaps any film about modern warfare: the relocation of battle scenes from the ground to the keyboard means that the action rests in the hands of men who press buttons. As a result, watching the film becomes an exercise in looking at a screen filled with other screens.
When the terrorists Powell is tracking suddenly switch their location, we get a rare moment of excitement. Barkhad Abdi, who received an Academy Award nomination for his performance as a Somali pirate in Captain Phillips, arrives as an undercover agent forced with following the terrorists on the ground. It’s a relief to be connected with his immediate, physical reality. Abdi is the best thing about the film, expressing determination as he risks his wellbeing to spy on the terrorists. When his remotely controlled camera shows the terrorists preparing for a suicide bombing, the mission switches from “capture” to “kill.” The only problem is the young girl selling bread directly next to the terrorist’s meeting place. She’s an emblem of infinite purity, but Powell is prepared to pull the trigger, insisting that a single life lost is acceptable if it means preventing a major, public bombing.
What ensues is enough back-and-forth to make you feel like less like Sergeant Williams from The Hurt Locker and more like his tireless secretary, chasing down men in suits for yes or no answers. Mirren, Paul and Rickman (in his penultimate film role) do their best to rise above the tedious material but it’s no use. The “to shoot or not to shoot” dilemma is made increasingly tiresome by a scheming score that constantly toys with our emotions, turning Eye in the Sky into a public service announcement with no real message. Most bothersome of all is the young Kenyan girl, a mere symbol employed by the film’s western filmmakers as an empty vessel of innocence lost.
The use of drone strikes remains debatable and heavily misunderstood, and a film like Eye in the Sky had the potential to shed light on a globally relevant and morally complex subject. Unfortunately, its one-dimensional characters and obvious attempts to pull heartstrings make it not only boring, but offensive. The film aims to provoke discussion, but the result is heavy-handed, its gravity increasingly awkward because it’s paired with a tone of blockbuster suspense that trivializes the very issue it’s trying to take seriously. Borrowing the words of Michael Hayden, we could have used a more “precise and effective application” of filmmaking resources.