If Britannia once ruled the waves, America now indisputably rules the skies, and its aerial power is growing ever more precise. First, the USAAF of 1945, then an adjunct limb of the ground forces, could drop phosphorous bombs with impunity on every exposed inch of Dresden. Two decades later, napalm could be used to raze thin stretches of settled and foxhole-littered jungle in Vietnam, sans, supposedly, excessive civilian loss of life. Now, a house in a Kenyan neighborhood can be pinpointed and destroyed from kilometers above with the latest in predator drone technology. This is as much a moral as it is a technological evolution, and it is a moral dilemma which lies at the heart of Eye in the Sky, given limited release in select theaters in the United States this past month.
The film begins with Colonel Katherine Powell, played tight-lipped and fiercely concentrated by Helen Mirren, waking in the dim morning of Surrey, England. She has been tracking a pair of British nationals affiliated with the East African jihadist organization Al-Shabaab for years, and is on the verge of a breakthrough: her targets, along with a significant cadre of Al-Shabaab leadership, will all be meeting together in one house to prepare their next bombings.
Given the gravity of this mission, Lieutenant General Frank Benson, the late Alan Rickman’s final onscreen role, seems out of place as he sorts out the headache of buying the right doll for his daughter on his way to a conference room in Whitehall. When he arrives, those observing the mission with him are not military but civic figures — legal, foreign policy, and domestic administrative experts. On the other side of the planet, drone pilots Steve Watts, played by Aaron Paul, and Carrie Gershon, played by Phoebe Fox, are likewise chitchatting on their respective backgrounds and aspirations in the Air Force in the heat of the Nevada evening. The criminally under-appreciated Barkhad Abdi wonders aloud at the ridiculous complexity of certain James Bond-ish spy gadgets in use by Kenyan special forces, including a robotic drone camera shaped like a beetle.
At this point, the viewer becomes aware of the startling complexity and scale of the operation underway: military personnel and special forces operatives on three separate continents are coordinating a mission down to the precision of a millisecond. What ultimately makes the film as compelling as it is, however, is the gut-wrenching realization that this 21st century precision cannot account for every stray particle of chaos in something as fraught with risk as a counter-terrorism raid. This is the aforementioned moral dilemma of the film: when an adolescent girl named Alia wanders into the drone’s kill-zone to sell bread, feet away from Kenya’s most wanted, the British and American operatives must decide whether to almost certainly kill an innocent child or let terrorists planning further attacks slip through their grasp. This is a dilemma that almost none of the film’s characters are up to tackling.
Eye in the Sky is unsparing in its portrait of computerized warfare. Technicians, diplomats and starred-generals shout themselves hoarse searching for loopholes or arguing out legal technicalities to solve the situation (in a grim streak of humor, one British secretary does so whilst suffering an explosive bout of food poisoning). One might be tempted to call this a philosophical quandary, but in truth, there is little to debate over philosophically. Objectively, and according to the tried and true Spock doctrine of “the needs of the many,” the missile should be launched, or the militants in question are free to attack crowded public spaces as they will, killing far more than just one person.
What seems more pertinent to be debated, as portrayed in the film, is how far humanitarian concerns should be accommodated within a military framework. Although the weapons of today are launched by binary sequences, a human finger must still pull the trigger. Daniel Kearns, a former paratrooper in the 82nd Airborne Division, laconically claimed that to engage the United States in a conventional war would “be like a 3-year-old child playing chess against Gary Kasparov. They wouldn’t even know what they were supposed to be looking at.” For Aaron Paul’s character Watts, the opposite is the source of his powerlessness: the crystal clarity of the image he receives of Alia selling bread paralyzes him and renders the film’s second half a feverish stew of tension: will he or won’t he fire? If he does, is it worth it?
Are we as a society willing to inflict literal hellfire in the form of a heaven-born missile on people who simply happen to be standing in the wrong place? Is this worth the dehumanizing worldview it gives both to us, the computer-masters, and the nameless people now classified as “collateral?” What Eye in the Sky shows is that the essence of war, and its greedy demand for disregard of human life, stubbornly refuses to be altered, no matter how withdrawn those who pull the trigger are. This is the price of the Pax Americana.
Griffin Smith-Nichols is a freshman in the College of Arts and Sciences. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.