When I initially saw Helen Mirren discussing the film Eye in the Sky on the Andrew Marr show, my interest was piqued. I was interested as to how a film about a drone strike could be interesting and whether there would be an attempt to bring in a pro- or anti-drone message within the film. I also really wanted to see the last film Alan Rickman was in. I went in not knowing what to expect and I came out utterly blown away. This was an excellent film that was not only enjoyable, but also one that really did a great job at showing you a realistic portrayal of drone warfare without clobbering you over the head with a message. It is a hallmark of a good film that they can take you through something that could be a normal day and ensure that the audience is invested and interesting, and that’s just what this film did. While I do have some criticism for it, I highly recommend that people watch this film.
Eye in the Sky is a short film, clocking in at under two hours. However, it is incredibly intense. You feel like you are in there for much longer as every minute stretches out, almost like it would in a real combat situation. What starts as a normal capture mission immediately escalates into a kill mission and the film does a great job of ramping up the intensity and having the audience see what is happening at the same time as the characters, meaning that every reveal comes at the same time and we have to make the same decisions in our heads as the people on the screen. We see how the capture operation can no longer be carried out and the threat of a suicide bombing that may kill many people becomes apparent. The characters’ responses, as well as the presence of potential collateral damage, occurs alongside us as an audience doing the same thing (and possibly reaching different conclusions). Furthermore, there is the danger for the ground operatives who are the ones closest to the firing line and who could well all be killed with even one mistake (and in fact one of them nearly does get killed). When one realises how short this film is, we begin to understand how quickly life-altering decisions have to be made in the real world military and the effects of those decisions.
Additionally, the film is visually stunning. The shots of Nairobi, footage from the drone’s camera, and the back and forth within Whitehall and Drone Command gives the idea of how truly global the War on Terror is. In this film you have an operation being conducted in Nairobi, coordinated from London, with drone pilots in Nevada (controlling a drone in Nairobi) and having visual support from Pearl Harbor. It was amazing the amount of precision that a drone camera could get and it really gives you a perspective of how much the military can see from a robot in the ionosphere. A drone can actually make out a girl selling bread and see her in detail. We can see in this film the amount of detail and precision in the War on Terror and how much everyone knows which is interesting from our point of view.
The performance from all of the actors were truly remarkable. Helen Mirren, Alan Rickman, Barkhad Abdi, Iain Glen, and Aaron Paul all brought very human elements to the film. None of them were playing caricatures or one-dimensional characters. All of these people were sympathetic, all of them wanted to do a good job and thought that they were in the right and could be conceivably seen as actually being right.
Mirren played a Colonel who was focused on her objective, which was to remove these terrorists she had been tracking for 6 years. She did not wish to kill anyone else, but thought that the risks meant she needed to act. She was not acting as a tyrant but as someone who wanted to get the job done.
Aaron Paul also played a great role as the drone pilot who wanted to minimise casualties. Rather than being the plucky hero who countermands immoral orders, he is just someone who wants to minimise casualties and is not against firing the drone. Hejust wants to be sure everything is done correctly.
Rickman as well appears as a military person who wants the people he is with to come to a decision. He is not trying to force anything, just put all the options on the table when none of them are good.
Glenn is not playing a spineless politician either, he is playing someone who has to consider all options when none of them are good and make a decision. All these roles are real human roles that any of us can understand and accept. Any of us could see ourselves coming to the same conclusion when we insert ourselves into the characters shoes and that takes some serious acting to do.
There are some elements of the film that I felt we could have done without. I thought some of the political bits did tend to go into the one-dimensional area. The junior minister who had to make the call and who deferred up seemed to be unnecessary as he just appeared spineless. It would have made more sense for the Foreign Secretary to be in the room or immediately dialled up rather than have a character who did not add that much to the film. The same could be said for the completely superfluous scene with the American Secretary of State. Those political characters really seemed to let the plot down as they contrasted so much with the real, human characters we saw. I particularly dislike the SpAd there who kept advising restraint even when it was obvious that a strike had to happen and kept throwing up obstacles. It seemed like any of her lines could have gone to any of the good characters and did not need to be wasted on a character who was basically a plot device to slow the plot down. For a film that did such a good job with its main characters, having one-dimensional ones really seems an oversight.
Finally, I felt that at times the film spent too much time on the bystanders. Having the character of Alia be revealed to have moderate parents and enjoy playing with a hula hoop and struggle with maths was clearly done to endear us to her but it was unnecessary. Having a little girl who is selling bread be in the frag radius of a drone strike has a default setting of sympathy and the views of her parents would have nothing to do with that. Even if her parents loved Al-Shabaab it would still make her a sympathetic character who we would not want to see die. The focus on a bystander this early in the film telegraphed that she would play a role and potentially die and broke the immersion and intensity of the film because we knew it would happen before it did, and the fact that most of the time the audience discovered things at the same time as the characters was what made this film so great.