Film & Television

Helen Mirren’s ‘Eye in the Sky’: Difficult Questions and No Easy Answers


Joseph Stalin is often credited with saying, “One death is a tragedy; one million deaths is a statistic.” (Whether he said it or not, one assumes he had first-hand experience with both.) He was right; a single human story is more powerful than the most massive disaster. News programmers understand this all too well. That’s why they’ll cut away from aerial views of a devastating earthquake to a single person searching for a loved one in the rubble.

Modern day warfare has in many ways taken the human element out of the equation. Hand-to-hand combat is virtually unheard of and even the language we use, terms like “weapons of mass destruction” and “collateral damage,” effectively diffuse the concepts of life and death. Meanwhile, the very real threat of terrorism in recent years has justified the use of unmanned aerial vehicles or drones. But as that technology advances, it brings up emotional as well as ethical dilemmas. What happens when you can see the whites of their eyes — not just your target’s, but innocent bystanders — from continents away?

The tense, thought-provoking and precisely executed new movie Eye in the Sky takes on these enormous issues by dramatizing a single, nearly real-time, incident. South African director Gavin Hood (Tsotsi, X-Men Origins: Wolverine) forces us to examine not only what should be done but what we would do faced with an almost impossible decision. Working with a screenplay by Guy Hibbert, Hood pulls off a delicate balancing act. He somehow weaves together the military, legal and political strategies of contemporary warfare with its devastating physical and psychological aftermath. And, with a clock ticking throughout, he keeps the audience on the edge of their seats.

The movie’s plot feels frighteningly authentic. A joint initiative of U.K. and U.S. military has honed in on key members of a Kenyan-based terrorist group along with newly minted recruits. Their mission is to capture these targets and bring them back to England to stand trial. With armed extremists everywhere, this seems difficult enough, but using remote surveillance (ingenious minuscule drone birds and bugs), the team discovers that the group is about to launch a suicide attack. With the ability to drop a bomb directly on the house where preparations are being made, changing the mission from a “capture” to a “kill” seems like a no-brainer. But, with protocol, politics and principles involved, it’s not that simple.

The first obstacle is bureaucratic. The team has approval for a capture, not a kill. And, some of the terrorists are technically U.S. and U.K. citizens. Can the military murder them? Who will take responsibility? How far up the ladder must the decision go? This results in buck passing of epic proportion. Black comedy finds its way into the otherwise taut tale as senior official after senior official is interrupted from other, frankly less significant, affairs to make a life or death decision in the middle of a ping pong tournament or a bout of food poisoning (“I told him not to order the prawns”). Nobody is willing to take a stand and they debate “winning the war on terror” vs. “winning the propaganda war on terror” with doublespeak that would put a knowing look in George Orwell’s eye. The frustration of the military personnel feels completely justifiable.

The second obstacle occurs when a young girl wanders into the kill zone to sell bread. The same drone that’s capable of leveling a house full of terrorists can zoom in on the child’s face making the decision’s potential “collateral damage” heart-breakingly human. The American drone pilot, sitting safely in a bunker in Las Vegas, exercises his prerogative to know her chance of fatality if he fires, and this sets in motion a desperate attempt to save her without letting the terrorists get away.

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