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JUSTICE ISSUES: DRONES AND COLLATERAL DAMAGE: MOVIE - EYE IN THE SKY

2016 eye in the sky


Review: SIGNIS, WORLD CATHOLIC ASSOCIATION FOR COMMUNICATION. 

It was once thought that God’s eye was in the sky. Nowadays, with satellites in space and with drones and surveillance machinery so readily available, governments and military do have eyes, many eyes, in the sky.

This is a story about a drone strike, the role of the military, politicians in Britain, in the United States, legal advice, the technicians who calculate collateral damage in the case of a strike, intelligence and photo recognition, and the pilot and his associate who pulls the trigger.

Most people probably, give little thought in their everyday lives to the existence of drones, the missions, the dropping of bombs. When they do, it is usually as the result of media headlines, taking out of some terrorist leaders or the sad news of collateral damage of civilians being killed and injured in explosions.

This is where Eye in the Sky takes us, 105 minutes of screen time to give thought to all the implications of drones, strikes and the consequences.

At the opening of the film in Nairobi, we see little girl and her father mending her hulahoop and her playing in the yard (later, as a reminder of the strictness of Somalia’s Al Shebab, she is told not to play in front of a customer who disapproves of children, playing according to Sharia law). As the little girl appears throughout the film, going up the street to sell loaves of bread that her mother is baking, we appreciate that the question of collateral damage is going to be raised in her regard at least.

The film gives immediate information about the central characters and the places where decisions will be made: at a military base in England, at a conference room in Whitehall, London, in an image recognition centre in Hawaii, local offices for collaboration with Kenyan military authorities and the room in the Nevada desert base where the pilot who will pull the trigger will watch screens and wait for orders.

We are brought up to date with the situation, a British citizen who has married a terrorist and has been radicalised, an American citizen flying in to join the local terrorist cell, the Somalis who are operating in Kenya and antagonistic towards the Kenyan government and its alliance with the UK and the US. When intelligence comes in that these suspects are in the one building, the Colonel in England makes a plan for the capture of the terrorist with British and American passports.

Most audiences will be amazed at the amount of surveillance available, the clarity of the images, the ability to zoom in and out – not just from drones in the sky but from mini-drones, mechanical birds with surveillance eyes and, then, a small mechanical beetle which can fly into rooms and around rooms bringing in extra detail to all those watching in Africa, Britain and the United States.

The screenplay has all those involved in making decisions about the strike tackling all the reasons, for and against, moral decision-making and its being grounded in rational arguments as well as emotional arguments.

The Colonel in charge is played by Helen Mirren who noted that the part was originally written for a male actor but changed for her. She is in contact with a general who goes to Whitehall for decision-making about the strike with the Attorney General, the ministers of the Crown. He is Alan Rickman in one of his final roles, and Jeremy Northam and Richard McCabe as the ministers. Monica Dolan appears as another minister who has strong views about the repercussions of the strike.

The main American is the pilot, Aaron Paul, sitting with his associate in a small hut, unlike a cockpit, at the Nevada base.

Most of the action seems to be playing in real time – or at least it seems that way. The situation inside the targeted house changes dramatically bringing an urgency for a decision to be made as quickly as possible, the Colonel urging immediate action, supported by the general in Whitehall, but complications arise with the opinions of the ministers, the need to contact the Foreign Minister who is in Singapore, contacting the American Secretary of State who is in Beijing, the Prime Minister who is giving a speech in Strasbourg.

In the meantime, the little girl is selling bread at a table-stall outside the wall of the targeted building, bringing that extra dimension of collateral damage into the consideration. And the question: is the death of one little girl in collateral damage to be preferred over the potential for 80 or more people to be killed by suicide bombers in public areas. All sides of the argument are presented with some drama as the local agent, a Somali, who has controlled the beetle in the house, makes an attempt to buy all the bread so that the little girl will go home.

This means that the film is a challenge to moral stances, whether one agrees with the military making the strike decision or those who hesitate, thinking compassionately about collateral damage or weighing up the odds about public opinion if the UK and the US authorise a strike with a consequent death or whether the terrorists, Al Shebab, will be blamed for greater acts of terror and massacres.

There is a tension throughout the film, more so as the audience begins to weigh up the choices and identify with one or other approach.

In one sense, it may be thought that there is a satisfactory ending, but, on the other hand, not.

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EYE IN THE SKY

UK, 2016, 102 minutes, Colour.

Helen Mirren, Aaron Paul, Alan Rickman, Jeremy Northam, Barkhad Abdi, Iain Glenn, Phoebe Fox, Aisha Takow, Richard McCabe, Monica Dolan, Michael O'Keefe, GavIn Hood, Laila Robbins.

Directed by GavIn Hood.