Loathe as I am to quote gun fanatics, I couldn't help but think about their oft-quoted "guns don't kill people" rhetoric throughout the duration of Gavin Hood's new political thriller "Eye in the Sky". Indeed, despite all the high tech being employed in modern warfare as depicted in this film, the act of killing is ultimately a human decision. And like countless other anti-war films, its narrative weighs the cost of this decision against its perceived benefits. But whereas others often confront the moral issues from either the pre-combat stage of war or its aftermath, this deeply fascinating nailbiter puts us right in the immediate hot seat with the men and women tasked with pulling the trigger.
The premise of "Eye in the Sky" is fairly straightforward. In modern day Kenya, Colonel Katherine Powell (Helen Mirren) heads a covert operation to track down known terrorists working for the notorious Al Shabab organization. After years of meticulous intelligence work, Powell and her military team have finally cornered them in a Nairobi safehouse. Watching from afar, drone pilot Steve Watts (Aaron Paul) is locked and loaded, ready to engage. But a last minute development brings serious complications to the mission. The titular "eye in the sky" spots an innocent young girl within the target, providing a surefire risk of civilian casualty. Now, a pivotal question must be answered. Should they sacrifice this girl's life for the greater good?
And with that one question, the film takes this usual split-second decision and expands it to a far-reaching examination of wartime ethics and all the parties involved. In this scenario, the primary players are a network of American and British military/political personnel (anchored by Helen Mirren's sturdy performance as the level-headed brains of the operation). Though the film's war zone is Kenya, the main issue at hand concerns the policies of the Western world in the war against terror and perhaps more importantly, the influence of public perception.
Indeed, "Eye in the Sky" is all about optics, from the more literal visuals of drone espionage, to the all-important PID (Positive identification), to the more subjective nature of "good vs bad". The latter becomes the focal point of the narrative, leading to a almost comical series of bureaucratic "passing of the buck" that reaches near "Dr. Strangelove" levels of wartime farce. Throughout these proceedings, the film makes its most astute observation. That is, the brutal truth that the ultimate decision of whether or not to sacrifice a little girl has little to do with a sense of moral duty.
And yet, the film still goes to great lengths to convince the audience that a single civilian casualty would stall one of the most important terrorist takedowns in recent history. Imagine a version of "Zero Dark Thirty" where the climactic raid is halted for one person. Having seen my fair share of war documentaries (and of course, from everyday knowledge of our society), I remain skeptical. A fictional world indeed.
But once you suspend your disbelief, "Eye in the Sky" provides solid entertainment through and through. Granted, outside of clever aerial photography and a low-rumbling score that appropriately evokes a sandstorm on the horizon, the direction isn't especially stylish. But the film grips you in the sheer conviction of its message, as Hood provides an ingeniously effective exercise in tension-building, as well as a thought-provoking anti-war statement. Should they kill this little girl to prevent even greater mass murder? As this film proves, there's no right answer. Or at the very least, none that would help you sleep better at night.