Film and Book Reviews

Moral perspectives generated by Eye in the Sky


By Beryl Rule

April 7 2016

The tension generated from the start of this film mounts until it becomes almost unbearable by the climax. I was gripping the armrests of my seat so tightly my fingers were numb afterwards, and I think I forgot to breathe. But Eye in the Sky is far more than a nail-biter. It is an exploration of the moral dilemmas – military, political and ethical – posed by drone warfare in today’s world.

Colonel Katherine Powell (Helen Mirren) is a UK intelligence officer leading a mission to capture a terrorist group which is gathering in a safe house in Nairobi, Kenya. She is working in concert with the United States and Kenya, using airborne surveillance to monitor activity in the house as she waits for the right moment for forces on the ground to strike.

But when a screening of the interior shows two new recruits being fitted out with suicide vests, Powell wants to alter the mission from “capture” to “kill”, arguing that the strike will have to be made from above. Drone operator Steve Watts (Aaron Paul) is ready to engage when a young girl sets up a bread stall close to the house. If the drone is released she, along with the terrorists, will either die or be terribly wounded.

Powell has had authorisation for the “capture” mission, but now legal and political objections are raised to changing the rules of engagement. What will be the press and public reaction if an innocent child is slaughtered? Lieutenant General Frank Benson (the late Alan Rickman in, sadly, his final film) argues with increasingly nervous politicians that delaying the strike till the girl sells her bread is likely to mean the suicide bombers leave and kill many more people. Should the innocent in a shopping mall, for instance, die in high numbers to save the life of one child?

As furiously frustrated Powell presses urgently for permission to go ahead, Benson tries to reason with the British politicians, the drone operator waits, horrified at the girl’s image on the screen before him, and with no-one willing to take responsibility buck-passing goes to prime ministerial and presidential levels as precious minutes tick by.

The military and the observers see the child on their screens using their “eye in the sky”, but we also see her on the ground, in her own home, sitting on her neatly made bed with a doll beside her, playing joyously with her hoop, struggling to do maths. She is Alia (Aisha Takow), a sunny little girl much beloved by her parents.

Making the fateful strike decision affects not only lawyers, politicians and commanders, but the agonised operator who must trigger the bombing, and the conscience-stricken sergeant pressured by Powell into reducing his percentage assessment of collateral damage.

All the arguments have their own validity. “Thou shalt not kill”, once so straight forward, acquires terrifying complexity from an eye in the sky perspective.