Directed by Gavin Hood. UK 2015: Entertainment One, 102 min.
Only gradually are peace activists realizing that we must recognize drones as the technological avant-garde of modern warfare. They are our future. Gavin Hood’s excellent film, Eye in the Sky, shows the equipment and how it works and, more importantly, forces us to consider its moral implications. It stars Helen Mirren as a tough Colonel Katharine Powell, and Alan Rickman in his last screen role as Lt Gen Frank Benson.
Neither of these British officers is reluctant to take military risks. Colonel Powell has been pursuing a group of al-Shabaab terrorists for years and today knows that they have been traced to Nairobi, where her order is to “capture, not kill” them. She is controlling the operation from England by satellite communications.
From the drone hovering above Nairobi, we watch an adorable young girl playing with a hula hoop in her Kenyan backyard and then selling bread in the street, very close to the location of the terrorists. We are shown the interactions of players all around the world as they prepare to carry out this mission. The drone pilot and co-pilot are in Nevada.
In Nairobi, Barkhad Abdi’s character, Jama Farah, is on the ground, controlling spyware while barely evading capture by hostile military guards. He sends a tiny drone the size of a bumblebee through an open window, where it perches on an overhead rafter observing the terrorists, who are preparing to put on suicide vests for a large-scale massacre, presumably within minutes. This changes everything. Colonel Powell, realizing that she cannot capture them, requests permission to destroy the house before they can leave it.
But the officials in Britain are squeamish, hoping to avoid killing the girl. They keep “referring” the matter up the chain of command, much to the annoyance of General Benson, who sees the solution as obvioua: You kill the child as collateral damage, but thereby save the lives of 50 or 60 innocent shoppers who will otherwise die from the suicide bombing. The suspense comes from the strategies to draw the child far enough from her table in the street to enable the drone to attack without killing her. The pilot even considers disobeying his orders to protect the girl.
The audience does learn about drones and the global communications system that they depend upon. But the main moral dilemma of the plot applies equally to the great majority of other war stories: By fighting to protect the innocent, one may have to kill other innocents. Is that justifiable? Is the answer a numerical one? If so, how many lives may be sacrificed to save how many other lives?