I’d just come home from a screening of Eye in the Sky, Gavin Hood’s fine thriller about a terrorist cell in Kenya, when the news came through that Taliban suicide-bombers had killed more than a hundred people in Pakistan. Timely reminders of the reality of modern warfare and its distinctive horrors aren’t hard to find these days. A couple of weeks earlier we had the ISIS attacks in Brussels; before that it was Paris. Stories abound of Al-Shabah atrocities in North Africa, and the nightmare in Iraq and Syria shows no sign of ending. There’s still plenty of scope for filmmakers.
But it’s not just its brutal topicality that gives Eye in the Sky such devastating impact. It’s a riveting suspense thriller, impeccably crafted with a clear moral dimension. We are forced to confront some troubling questions: Does individual conscience have a legitimate role in modern warfare? Are we justified in taking innocent lives in pursuit of a just and overriding military objective? Are drones an immoral weapon, as some have argued, because their “pilots” are immune from counter-attack? Hood’s film opens with an on-screen quotation of Aeschylus’s famous line: “The first casualty in war is truth.” But can there be any truthful answers to these questions?
Eye in the Sky is fiction (the screenplay is by Guy Hibbert), but it’s rooted in real events. More than once in the film we are reminded that Al-Shabah bombers killed 67 people in an attack in Nairobi two years ago. Helen Mirren plays Colonel Katherine Powell, a US intelligence officer in charge of a joint British-American rescue mission aimed at capturing a radicalised British woman who has joined a terrorist cell. The woman has been traced (along with a radicalised American) to a safe house in a Nairobi suburb. Powell’s orders are “to capture, not kill.” But when she discovers that the safe house shelters three suicide-bombers preparing another attack she convinces her superior officer, General Frank Benson (Alan Rickman), to launch a drone missile and blow the house to bits.
All is ready to go. The drone hovers overhead, and far away – in some air-conditioned US base deep in Nevada or wherever – a finger is poised on the trigger. But at the last minute the drone’s spy camera detects the presence of nine-year-old Alia, a Kenyan girl selling home-baked bread on the street. Sitting at a little table outside the safe house, she would almost certainly be killed if the missile were launched. (According to the jargon, of which we hear much, it’s a case of “95 percent CDE” – an estimated 95 percent chance of collateral damage, ie, the loss of innocent lives.) Should Alia be sacrificed? The steely-eyed Colonel Powell argues that she should: many more children’s lives will be lost if the suicide bombers are spared. A nervous attorney-general sees no legal objection to the raid, but refers a decision up the line to the foreign secretary (Iain Glen), who has qualms of his own and wants the PM’s approval (not to mention that of the US secretary of state, who is playing ping-pong with Chinese officials in Beijing when the call comes through).
Indecision and buck-passing are among the film’s main themes, and Hood pokes some gentle fun at the dithering politicos. For a moment I wondered if the PM would refer to the final call to Buckingham Palace, in which case we might once again see Helen Mirren playing Her Majesty (as she did so well in Stephen Frears’s film The Queen). But no such luck! Mirren has a big enough part as it is, and I doubt if she’s ever given a harsher and more intensely focused performance. There’s strong support also from Alan Rickman, whom many will remember as the sinister Severus Snape in the Harry Potter films, or (for those who are old enough) as the Reverend Obadiah Slope in the TV series Barchester Towers. (Rickman died last January and the film is dedicated to his memory.)
The final moments are brilliantly suspenseful, and audiences may feel a little guilty for desperately hoping (as I’m sure they are meant to) that the deadly attack will be launched. Or is it that, addicted as we are to violent spectacle, we want a climactic big bang to round off the movie? It’s a fine film, but I wish I could say that all its moral issues are resolved. Perhaps they never can be. In 2006 I praised Hood’s film Tsotsi, also set in Africa, for its memorable portrayal of life in the impoverished black townships, the appalling contrast between the lives of the rich and the poor. I felt something similar with Eye in the Sky as I watched those political big-shots, in their elegant, softly-lit, wood-panelled chamber, plan their lethal raid while Kenyans are living in squalor.
And when it comes to war, how do we compare numbers? Politicians had no qualms about the Allied carpet bombing of German civilians during World War II, when countless children were burnt alive. Nor did anyone lose much sleep at the time over Hiroshima and Nagasaki. But in Eye in the Sky our leaders agonise over the fate of a single child. This may well be a sign of moral progress, but somehow I doubt it.
Eye in the Sky, rated M, is in national release.
Evan Williams reviewed films in The Australian newspaper for 33 years. He is a Life Member of the Film Critics’ Circle of Australia for services to film criticism and the film industry.In 2015 he received the Geraldine Pascal Lifetime Achievement Award for critical writing.