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Non-Review: Eye in the Sky

Eye in the Sky is a powerful contemporary morality play.

Eye in the Sky feels a lot like an old-style “television play.” It recalls the sorts of stories from the period when television was trying figure out its relationship between film and stage. The action unfolds in a number of relatively confined locations with a relatively modest cast. This cast is then presented with a moral dilemma, which the script spends most of its one-hundred-minute runtime carefully twisting and unpacking. Even today, it is not too difficult to imagine an event “live” broadcast on a smaller broadcaster working from the same premise.

Mirr(en)ed in doubt...

Mirr(en)ed in doubt…

That is not to suggest that Eye in the Sky is cheap or uncinematic. Director Gavin Hood imbues the story with a lush cinematic style that feels a lot bigger than the moral drama playing out between the characters. Hood gives Eye in the Sky a sense of scale and heft that belies any formal similarities of classic television productions. At times, Hood is a little too cinematic, the hand of the director feeling a little too heavy in a morality play that takes great pains to be even-handed and complex.

However, these moments are fleeting; the film’s power lingers longer.

Eye see all...

Eye see all…

The basic set-up of Eye in the Sky will be familiar to anybody who has watched the news in the past half-decade. The title refers to the military drones that are used to track suspected international criminals and occasionally to rain death down upon them. These instruments have become part of a debate about the nature of warfare in the twenty-first century, especially with regards to issues of collateral damage and clinical detachment. Drones represent warfare filtered through a camera lens and broadcast around the world; the true globalisation of modern warfare.

The moral dilemma at the heart of Eye in the Sky is simple, but effective. A drone tracks a suspected terrorist leader to a village in rural Kenya. This is a rare opportunity to strike at some of the most wanted militants on the planet. However, those overseeing the drone strike find themselves wrestling with all manner of moral implications. As time counts down, the various characters work through the permutations and possibilities. Complexities arise and stakes heighten. What should have been a simple reconnaissance mission becomes fodder for soul-searching debate.

Bucket list.

Bucket list.

The stakes vary across the film’s runtime. However, the moral dilemma is essentially unchanged. Eye in the Sky confronts its characters with a simply question: how does one measure innocent lives? If the risking (or sacrificing) of a handful of innocent lives can save countless more, is it morally justifiable? Is actively (or even passively) taking some innocent life more or less morally justifiable than allowing others to take even more innocent life? Is there a moral imperative to act? Can somebody be morally culpable for their own inaction?

These are very basic philosophical questions. They are hardly new. It could be argued that Eye in the Sky is nothing more than a one-hour-and-forty minute mediation on the infamous “trolley problem” proposed by Philippa Foot in 1967. Eye in the Sky certainly wrings every possible piece of drama out of the dilemma, from “the propaganda war” to the arithmetic used to justify either action or inaction. However old these questions might be, they feel particularly appropriate in the era of drone warfare, when these discussions do take place over “biscuits and tea.”

"Sorry? I was playing mine-sweeper."

“Sorry? I was playing mine-sweeper.”

Gavin Hood does a lot of great work with Eye in the Sky, but perhaps his greatest contribution to the film is creating a sense of global scale to what is happening and the mediated nature not only of the reality of the event but also the communication about the event. In practice, Eye in the Sky is really just a bunch of characters talking in rooms, but the film creates a genuine sense of space between the characters. There is a clear sense of remove between the various sets of characters, and between the observers and the material action.

The narrative jumps from Kenya to Cabinet Office Briefing Room A to the British Army command centre to the Las Vegas flight command to Beijing. These are not just simple cuts. Hood is very careful to establish a clear sense of place with each transition. However, he is also careful to stress the disconnect that exists between various characters debating the ethics of the decision. The Cabinet Office communicates with the command centre primarily through a simple text interface; various characters speak through aides; some are only visible through chat windows.

A-Paul-ing moral dilemma...

A-Paul-ing moral dilemma…

Eye in the Sky cleverly and repeatedly emphasises the remove that exists, the insulation that is possible in this era of modern technology. There is not only an obvious gap between the target in Kenya and the drone operator in Las Vegas, there is a clear sense of disconnect between the people actively making the decision. Characters work hard to insulate themselves from the moral weight of actually making a decision, whether doing so through technology or mathematics or the simple bureaucratic workings of government.

Then again, the movie also stresses the irony that all of these procedures and safeguards ultimately serve to obscure the reality of the situation. The characters trapped inside this moral dilemma are all human. It is repeatedly suggested that various external factors might be influencing characters one way or another, with the system doing little to eliminate that bias. At worst, it actively conceals it. Eye in the Sky humanises these characters even as it fixates upon the larger machine of which they are all part.

"So, it's agreed. We're getting Chinese."

“So, it’s agreed. We’re getting Chinese.”

There are points at which Guy Hibbert’s script almost plays as a crossover between 24 and Yes, Prime Minister. The bureaucratic absurdity of the situation is matched only by the sheer horror. Everybody scrambles to protect themselves, couching answers in double-speak and refusing to commit to anything meaningful. Eye in the Sky occasionally indulges in some black comedy, whether the Foreign Secretary’s inconvenient bout of food poisoning or contrasting the rather blunt response from the American Secretary of State to all the British hand-wringing.

Hibbert’s script has a rather bleak sense of irony to it. Even the characters making the ostensibly moral argument seem more swayed by the optics than the principle. The argument is not so much whether killing an innocent for the greater good can be justified, but whether killing in an innocent looks better or worse than allowing a hostile terrorist act to press ahead. Eye on the Sky borders on bleak nihilism at times, only pulled back by the stark reminders of the human cost of all of this wrangling.

Lives are on the line...

Lives are on the line…

However, the irony of Hibbert’s script is offset by the earnestness of Gavin Hood’s direction. There are points in Eye in the Sky when it feels like the movie is about to collapse under the weight of cliché. Not only does Eye in the Sky frame its moral debate in the clearest terms possible, presenting the most innocent of potential collateral damage, Hood practically luxuriates in that innocence. Hood tends to heavily stylise his depictions of the potential victims of the drone strike, with slow motion footage and soaring music. It is at times too much.

Luckily, Eye in the Sky avoids becoming too maudlin or too heavy-handed. In fact, what is most striking about Hibbert’s script is the even-handedness of it all. While it would be easy to reduce the debate to the simple (and entirely defensible) argument that “killing innocents is bad, no matter what the circumstances”, the script grapples honestly and candidly with both sides of the debate. As cynical as Eye in the Sky might be about drone warfare, it is not romantic about any of the alternatives.

Hardly a flight of fancy...

Hardly a flight of fancy…

It helps that Hood has assembled a fantastic cast for his morality play, consciously dividing the cast among his locations.. Barkhad Abdi is the man on the ground. Aaron Paul is the drone pilot with his finger on the trigger. Helen Mirren is the officer directly in charge of the operation. Alan Rickman is managing the Cabinet oversight. Iain Glen is the Foreign Secretary. Splitting the cast is a risky gambit, but it pays off very well. It ensures that no one set of scenes dominates the others. Every level of the plot is anchored.

Eye in the Sky is a fascinating old-school morality play that feels as timely as ever.

4 Responses

  1. Nice review Darren. It talks about a lot of interesting issues, but at the same time, is still a very suspenseful movie.

  2. This is a great review thank you, even though I’m not entirely in sync with some of your comments. I think its much more than a “fascinating old-school morality play” and represents the future of warfare and the morality fallouts. Please drop in for a read of my take.

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