It's hard to name an area of public life not transformed by digital technology in the 21st century. There's no better example than modern warfare's use of drones — unmanned aircraft controlled by military personnel staring at computer screens half a world away from a battlefield, as if playing a video game.
South African filmmaker Gavin Hood's Eye in the Sky brings that reality to the big screen by portraying a covert military operation against international terrorists in real time and painstaking dramatic detail. The film examines the unique moral, legal and political quandaries generated by drone warfare. In the film and the real world, collateral damage in the form of unintended deaths is the primary issue, especially since terrorists often surround themselves with innocents to ward off the precisely targeted threats made possible by new technologies.
Eye in the Sky begins with a joint British-American mission to capture a British-citizen-turned-terrorist operating in Nairobi, Kenya. The purpose of the mission rapidly changes to assassination when the target attends a meeting — viewed via remote video surveillance by high-ranking British and American officials — that turns out to be the starting point for an imminent suicide bombing. Things get complicated when a little girl sets up shop to sell her mother's homemade bread on the street outside, just as officials receive clearance to blow up the meeting place with a Hellfire missile carried by a drone.
Riveting in the manner of classic edge-of-your-seat thrillers, Eye in the Sky deserves credit for confronting complicated issues not often addressed by mainstream films. Just when you think you've got the story's primary moral dilemma figured out — whether to risk sacrificing one little girl in hopes of saving dozens of potential victims — an unknown factor or fresh perspective arrives to give you pause.
But Eye in the Sky amounts to less than the sum of its parts, mostly due to a screenplay by British writer Guy Hibbert (TV's Prime Suspect) that leans on one-dimensional characters to make difficult issues easier to digest. Stars Helen Mirren (as the British military intelligence officer in charge of the mission) and the late Alan Rickman (as a lieutenant general pushing the operation forward) try gamely to add depth to their hawkish roles but bear the brunt of the screenplay's flaws. It's not the finest hour for either of these perennially powerhouse actors.
Compounding that problem is the film's refusal to take a stand on any of the issues it raises. Hood surely wants to provide food for thought and leave room for audiences to make up their own minds, which is admirable. But the film comes off more faint-hearted than ambiguous, and not as smart as it could be.
Shortcomings and all, Eye in the Sky deserves attention for accurately depicting a little-known but central aspect of current U.S. anti-terror efforts conducted across the globe. With anti-terrorism policy at the center of public debate in a hotly contested election year, there's no substitute for hard, cold reality.