The commander is in England. The drone pilot is in America. The terrorist is in Kenya. And the authority to strike is up in the air.
Somehow the world of drone warfare kind of snuck up on us. It wasn’t so long ago that we had to rely on the fuzzy satellite photos for intelligence, and it took a human pilot to drop bombs and/or shoot guns from the air. Not so much anymore, and the realities of drone warfare have changed the game. We now commit fewer troops on the ground, but civilian casualties are more frequent (and less easy to cover up). But we can’t forget that drones are part of a landscape that includes global terrorist organizations, organizations that aren’t committed to traditional battlefield operations. That means they kill more civilians than traditional armies too. What this opens up is a whole ethical can of worms. Some of our cultural products have tried to come to grips with this change (Homeland, for instance), but we haven’t had made movies tackling the intricacies of drones. Eye in the Sky gives viewers a solid idea of the complexities of the technology, but doesn’t add up to a compelling drama.
Colonel Katherine Powell (Helen Mirren, Red) is in charge of a multi-national task force assigned to capture some members of a terrorist cell in Nairobi. On the ground she has Kenya special forces, and her air support is a drone piloted by Steve Watts (Aaron Paul, Breaking Bad). It should be a routine snatch-and-grab, but the eyes on the ground discover that the group meeting in the house have suicide vests. With an attack imminent, Powell attempts to gain permission to shoot one of the drone’s Hellfire missiles at the house, even after a local girl sets up her bread-selling stand right next door.
As a peek into the world of drone warfare as practiced by vast multinational coalitions, Eye in the Sky is a fascinating peek behind the curtain. As someone who grew up on the fiction of Tom Clancy and Frederick Forsyth, authors who tried to weave a lot of specific knowledge about military procedure and practice, I appreciate the way the film orchestrates the complexity of drone deployment. Having to contend with different military hierarchies, coordinating between ground and air forces on separate continents, and the difficulties of establishing clear mission parameters are also really interesting.
Slightly less interesting, however, is the ethical dimension of the film. Obviously there’s a huge moral quandary when it comes to sacrificing the life of an innocent child versus stopping half a dozen people with suicide vests, but the film doesn’t quite do enough to take us beyond the simple, Philosophy 101 stage of simply posing the question.
Part of the reason that the ethical question the film raises isn’t compelling is because it does stick to that Philosophy 101 level. That’s because the film doesn’t really feel like a drama. The characters can and should give this dilemma life as each of them struggles with their own perspective. Obviously the response of Colonel Powell, who has operational command and is in charge of stopping terrorism, will be different from Watts, a two-year veteran who only joined the Air Force because he had a lot of college debt. But Eye in the Sky feels thin when it comes to these characters and generating human drama from their interactions. Part of the problem is that the film looks like a weird stage play. The action — from the drone’s-eye view to the actual terrorist location — is pretty solidly directed. But much of the rest of the film is like watching other people Skype. Because the characters are on different continents and in different locations, there are a lot of situations where the actors are only acting to another screen. That highlights the disconnection drone operation causes, but doesn’t make for compelling drama.
I can’t, however, fault the actors. Helen Mirren has played other commanding figures (notably Queen Elizabeth II), but I did not imagine that she’d fill out a military uniform with quite this much gravitas. Aaron Paul continues to branch out after the success of Breaking Bad, and he too does a better job playing a military man than I would have thought. In his last performance, Alan Rickman is as charming and smooth as ever. We’re introduced to him trying to by a doll for a granddaughter, and it’s the perfect introduction to his character.
Universal’s Eye in the Sky (Blu-ray) is pretty good too. The 2.40:1/1080p image is pretty good, with little to complain about, though less to compliment. Because of the sometimes-bland staging, there’s not a lot of visual poetry to the film. Detail is fine, and colors are well saturated, but the overall look of the film is kind of dull. I guess director Gavin Hood needed a break after Ender’s Game. The DTS-HD 5.1 track is a little better, but since this is largely a dialogue-driven film, don’t expect too much surround use. Luckily the dialogue is clear and well-balanced, with the film’s score sound rich and detailed as well. When the track is called on to perform — especially during action sequences — it delivers the goods, with excellent staging and directionality.
Extras start with a pair of under-two-minute featurettes that give an overview of the film and its themes, as well as the moral quandary at the center of the film. A DVD and Digital download code are included also.
Eye in the Sky does a fine job laying out the realities of drone-based conflict. From the coordination of multiple sources of information and command to the realities on the ground near the target, the film takes a sweeping look at how decisions are made. It doesn’t, however, offer a particularly compelling drama out of those decisions. That means fans of the actors will probably enjoy the film enough, but if you don’t care about drones or the performers, this is one to skip.