Film review of ‘Eye in the Sky’

There’s a decidedly TV movie feel to this film from South African director Gavin Hood (Tsotsi) that probably comes courtesy of a limited budget and a small number of uninspired locations (save an incredible ping pong hall in Beijing) spread across the globe.

Nevertheless, this doesn’t hamper the film’s efficiency in immersing us in the ethical, moral and bureaucratic quagmire endured by a small group of politicians and military officials over the matter of one protracted drone strike.
Anatomy of a drone strike

A group of high-priority Al-Shabaab terrorists are meeting in a secret safe-house in Nairobi, Kenya, unaware that they are being closely monitored by political and military personnel in both the UK and the US. When what was supposed to be a capture mission turns into a kill mission, a drone is dispatched by the US and awaits the green light from London to fire.

We share Colonel Katherine Powell’s (Mirren) increasing frustration as she is forced to watch the time run out on her opportunity to make this hit – one that we learn has been six years in the making. All the while politicians in Westminster are unable to agree on a legal course of action given that the target includes both UK and US nationals.

The tension ratchets up for everyone, including a young drone pilot in Nevada (Paul from Breaking Bad) who sits, finger on the trigger, conflicted over his duty to kill and a growing concern over a young Kenyan girl who sets up her bread stall inside the blast radius.

Rating bad next to The Queen
It would be too reassuring to believe that these decisions are informed by the kind of humanity on display here, but historical evidence tells us that this is not always the case. The drone pilot spends much of his time at the trigger with tears sitting in his eyes, and although we are told that this is his first strike, it is the one attempt to humanise these characters that doesn’t entirely ring true.

Helen Mirren excels as the British colonel in charge of the operation, allowing her impatience to only occasionally compromise her pointed composure throughout. The fact that we share in her frustration makes us complicit in her questionable willingness to get the kill – by any means necessary.

The late Alan Rickman, in his final screen role, is a lieutenant general who functions as Mirren’s go-between, tasked with schooling the politicians in Westminster.

Steers clear of jingoism
Alongside the drone itself, there are two other pieces of spy surveillance tech that would seem more at home in 007’s Q Division: a remote-controlled robotic bird that peeks through windows, and a flying insect intended to infiltrate close quarters. The latter is controlled with a repurposed gaming device by an undercover Kenyan agent (a welcome return for Barkhad Abdi from Captain Philips). These devices are crucial to the plot, and while the tech is actually in development, I suspect their representation here is somewhat fanciful.

Despite presenting a fairly one-sided perspective on drone warfare (i.e those who have them), Hood manages to wrap some pertinent questions about their use in a highly suspenseful package. What the film lacks in production value, we are spared in the kind of distasteful jingoism that might otherwise have saturated a larger (American) production.