This is a different thriller from most; the tension is mostly in the inaction rather than the action. Helen Mirren is the no-nonsense Colonel Katherine Powell in London and in direct command of the U.S. drone operators who are waiting to pull the trigger on a target in Kenya. She is logical and decisive while still being compassionate, unlike some of her superiors who cannot seem to think through problematic situations and come up with a plan. Clearly, many of them have sat at a desk through most of their careers. That is unlike Lieutenant General Frank Benson (Rickman), however, who immediately comprehends Powell’s reasoning and is prepared to give his authorization of a strike. He is a military man. It is the political officials who may not have had direct experience in war who struggle with making a decision.
There are agonizing moments as we watch two suicide bombers get fitted with their vests while we wait for multiple authorizations (these have been “kicked upstairs” or over to U.S. officials to avoid personally taking responsibility). Since this is spur-of-the-moment, many of the authorities are otherwise occupied, and are stunned about making such a decision at all, much less on the fly. The salient issue has to do with weighing the cost of one innocent casualty versus the potential of killing 80 men, women, and children. It becomes much more potent because everyone can see a particular little girl who could be caught in the explosion.
It is instructive for nonmilitary people to see the kind of agony that decision-makers must go through during a war—especially the newly appointed and young drone operators. In this instance, it is just as agonizing for the audience to sit through long sequences waiting for the higher-ups to make up their mind. And we have to listen to considerations that have more to do with political fall-out and “covering one’s butt” than humanitarian and ethical concerns, which makes it even more nerve-wracking.
During and after this long process, instructions are given as to how to report the incident, and the quote at the beginning of the film becomes applicable: “In war, truth is the first casualty” (Aeschylus).
Director Gavin Hood and writer Guy Hibbert have created a fine picture of substance that will grab your attention and pull you right in with the feeling of being a part of the action. They shed light on the new arena of drone warfare and help us understand some of its complexities. The cast is part of the excellence of the film, headed up by the ever-perfect Mirren who seems to be able to convincingly play any role. She and Rickman (May he rest in peace) make a good team, in sync with one another in timing and emotional space. Aaron Paul subtly evinces the conscience-ridden drone operator who has no experience in actual “kills”, and knows enough about the law that he can request reconsideration of an order. Barkhad Abdi reprises his role as a Somalian (Captain Phillips), but this time he is one of the good guys—well played.
Eye in the Sky will make you squirm and groan about wartime decision-making.