Eye In The Sky


Review by Willard Manus

Here’s a moral dilemma for you. What would you do if you were
the pilot of a drone who has been ordered to blow up a house where a suicide bomber was being armed, only to suddenly discover that a young girl was setting up a food stall just outside the house?

That’s the conflict at the heart of EYE IN THE SKY, the British indie film starring Helen Mirren and Alan Rickman (who sadly died a few months ago). Written by Guy Hibbert and directedby Gavin Hood, EYE IN THE SKY is a techno-thriller that has the ring of truth about it, if only because drones are such a big part of the ongoing battle against ISIS and other terrorist organizations.

Mirren plays Katherine Powell, a British colonel stationed in Kenya; an intelligence expert, she has been following by video transmission the trail of a renegade Englishwoman, a convert to Islam who has joined an Al Shabab cell. One of her fellow-members is a young American who has also given up his Western values and identity to become one of Allah’s vengeful warriors.

Mirren gets a tip from an agent on the ground that the terrorists are meeting at a safe house in Nairobi to plan a suicide-bomb attack. Technology in the form of a tiny mechanical bee helps get the Brits inside the house, where the digital camera embedded in the buzzing insect sends images back to Col. Powell and her team. The rules of engagement specify that the terrorists must be positively identified before the order to attack can be issued.

This order, we learn, must come not only from London but Washington, DC, where the nationalities of the ex-Westerners have to be taken into account. A U.S. air force bunker, located just outside Las Vegas, also figures in the story, as that’s where the actual pilot of the attack drone (Aaron Paul)is based. Thousands of miles from Kenya, he sits at a desk, watching the images being transmitted by his now-airborne drone, poised to push the red button that will fire two guided missiles into the heart of the Al Shabab safe house.

Rickman plays a low-key and thoughtful British general who is sequestered in a Whitehall war room with his country’s attorney-general, a military attache, and two politicians (one of whom is female). But not even these big-wigs can give the okay to kill a British subject on foreign soil; such a decision must come from the Prime Minister himself, even though the spy bee clearly shows that the suicide bomber is strapping on his vest. Soon he will go into the city and blow himself up in a public place, along with hundreds of innocent men, women and children.

With time beginning to run out, suspense keeps building, steadily and tautly. The buck is “referred up” the line not only in the UK but in the USA, where the White House must give its okay to launch. Things get even more complicated and nerve-wracking when a 9-year-old African girl (Alisha Takow), the daughter of a baker whom we have glimpsed earlier, sets up outside the safe house to peddle her family’s wares.

What to do now? The question is fiercely debated by the military and civilian experts. Will the blast kill or injure the girl? No one can say for sure, comes the answer. If that’s the case, argues the lady M.P., the drone attack should be scrapped, just on moral grounds. But what about the suicide bomber? Where’s the morality of allowing such a fanatic to commit mass murder?

Ultimately, everyone concerned must dig deep into himself and decide where he stands on this grim, complex life-or-death issue.