Game of Drones: Reviewing “Eye in the Sky”


For well over a decade the film and television industry has ranged over the political and moral terrain generated by the 9/11 era and the West’s subsequent foreign policy interventions during the “war on terror.” From the brilliantly satirical (Team America: World Police), the conspiratorial (Syriana), the trenchantly critical (Redacted), the intensely personal (American Sniper), to the quasi-factual (United 93 and Zero-Dark Thirty), a whole genre of movies and TV dramas have arisen depicting this most turbulent of ages.

Although ostensibly intended to entertain, which inevitably leads to over-simplification, no one can accuse the contemporary visual arts of shirking any engagement with the zeitgeist. As the overt Western involvements in Iraq and Afghanistan have been scaled back, the “war” has moved increasingly into the shadows of intelligence-led counter-actions against the forces of transnational jihadism. And this presents further opportunities for creative talents to explore the dramatic space that this facet of the conflict engenders.

The increasing reliance of Western operations on remotely piloted drones to conduct surveillance and targeted kill operations was notably dramatized in the fourth season of Homeland (2014) and has also briefly found its way into other series like season three of House of Cards (2015). With South African director Gavin Hood’s Eye in the Sky (U.S. release April 2016) we have the first concentrated cinematic dissection of the acute moral and political dilemmas that drone warfare generates.

Part of the film’s novelty is that the action takes place over the course of a few hours in a day. Col. Katherine Powell (Helen Mirren) is coordinating a complex multinational operation from the United Kingdom’s Permanent Joint Headquarters (PJHQ) in Northwood, on the outskirts of London. The mission is to arrest Susan Danford, a British convert to Islam and now fanatical jihadist suspected of involvement in the Westgate shopping mall attacks in Kenya. She has been traced to a compound in Eastleigh, a suburb of Nairobi known as “Little Mogadishu.”

The figure of Danford is an almost exact simulacrum of the real-life persona of Samantha Lewthwaite, the so-called White Widow. She remains one of the world’s most wanted fugitives, a suspected member of the Somali based Al-Shabaab movement and a culprit behind a series of deadly jihadist attacks in East Africa. The appeal to authenticity in the film, referencing actual places and events, lends an added sense of relevance and plausibility. (Note: Some spoiler alerts follow, but the U.S. trailer already reveals most of the plot).

The surveillance part of the operation is conducted via a Reaper drone piloted by two U.S. Air Force personnel, Steve Watts (Aaron Paul) and Carrie Gershon (Phoebe Fox). They pilot the drone from their darkened, air-conditioned, lair in Creech Air Force Base, Nevada, while the arrest team led by the Kenyan Army is to be given the go-ahead once Danford and other assorted militants are confirmed in place. Meanwhile, back in London, a small team of the Cabinet Office Briefing Room (COBRA) committee, led by Lt. Gen. Frank Benson (Alan Rickman) and composed of various ministers and legal advisors, is monitoring events. The intention is to witness the final capture of the infamous Danford, who has been on the run for over six years.

The mission intensifies, however, when Kenyan surveillance of the compound reveals that the occupants are unmistakably preparing two operatives for a double-suicide attack. The operational imperative shifts from capture to kill and the Reaper is prepped to fire its Hellfire missiles into the compound. The likelihood of limited collateral damage is accepted, but the ethical stakes clearly dictate that the prospect of allowing the suicide bombers to do their worst outweighs the potential that a few innocents will likely be killed and injured in a precisely targeted missile strike.

The moral calculus changes dramatically when the presence of a young girl selling bread by the side of the compound is detected. Undoubtedly, a drone strike will place her life in mortal danger. This sets in train a tense and suspense-laden dialogue among the participants about how to weigh the life of a young child against the possibility of even more innocents being killed if the suicide bombers are allowed to escape the compound.

Time is of the essence. Military necessity and, indeed, a legitimate utilitarian ethical calculation, demand that the missiles be released. Political expediency and other equally potent moral arguments about not knowingly risking civilian deaths argue against. The politicians recognize the case for action yet, in contrast to the military, are reluctant to sanction a missile strike. In addition to a pricked conscience, harming young children in the attack could reflect badly on them and undermine the propaganda war against the jihadists.

The legal advisors are torn. The British attorney general, George Matherson (Richard McCabe) accepts, reluctantly, that the rules of engagement do permit an attack. In contrast, the parliamentary advisor, Angela Northman (Monica Dolan), adamantly refuses to countenance any thought that a child should be put in harm’s way, even if dozens of others might lose their lives later in suicide attacks. The ministers responsible for giving clearance for the strike therefore feel pressed constantly to request higher authority, leading to the film’s lighter moments as the British foreign secretary (Iain Glen) is compelled to offer his less than clear-cut view in the midst of a bout of food poisoning in Singapore, while the U.S. secretary of state (Michael O’Keefe) is clearly irritated to have his ping pong diplomacy in China interrupted by what he considers to be a trivial non-issue. Is all this an evasion of ministerial responsibility, or an entirely understandable need for political top cover?

The great strength of the film is that no side of the argument is subject to caricature. A complex and absorbing point versus counterpoint exchange ensues with the sympathies of the viewer continually being challenged. The character of Col. Powell (incidentally, a very welcome and convincing female lead performance) is plainly highly driven having been on Danford’s tail for years. She is certainly prepared to push and stretch the rules of engagement but never to breach them. Though endlessly frustrated by the political prevarication she now has to endure, she nevertheless strives to always maintain a cool head and remains respectful of the chain of command.

Likewise, the roles of the drone pilots, Watts and Gershon, both impressively controlled performances by Paul and Fox, are deeply troubled by what they are being tasked to undertake. Yet, while they properly question aspects of the mission, they never give in to the histrionics of disobeying orders, which would lead other, weaker, plots into the realm of implausibility. Their characters remain professional, and therefore provide a more faithful, and powerful, portrayal of moral complexity.

The cost of moral complexity is that inevitably tragedy will befall someone, somewhere. The film never glosses over the likely human consequences on the ground but neither does it ignore the painful psychological effects inflicted on those who have to make the decisions that result in life or death, be it those whose purpose is to sanction the action, for those who oversee it, or for those who in the end have to squeeze the trigger that releases the Hellfire missiles. The fact that the decisions are undertaken remotely, thousands of miles away from the scene of the action, by operatives flying drones from the sanctuary of Creech Air Force Base, at PJHQ in Northwood, or over “tea and biscuits” in Whitehall, doesn’t lessen the trauma.

The psychological price paid by the participants is conveyed in an understated manner, being particularly inscribed on the faces of Watts and Gershon at the end of the mission, whose characters, the film intimates, are likely to suffer a lifetime of pain as their reward for services to their country. Even with the steely character of Col. Powell, it is hinted that her long pursuit of Danford is not without its personal regrets and consequences.

The great German sociologist Max Weber stated in Politics as a Vocation that when one enters the political realm one contracts with diabolical powers. “Anyone who fails to see this,” he memorably declared, “is, indeed, a political infant.” Above all, this film is about how people engage with these diabolical powers of utilitarian calculation that lead to the weighing up of costs, benefits, and ultimately lives. It invites us not to revile those in positions of power, be it political or military, or to regard their actions primarily as cynical maneuvering, but asks us to empathize with the acute moral dilemmas they have to face.

In fact, if any critical message is contained in the movie, it is that moral posturing is easy, cheap and, perhaps, in some ways just as cynical, or at least self-interested: a point forcefully made by the character of Gen. Benson, a fitting goodbye to the late Alan Rickman in his final role. He reminds the principled, if somewhat pious, Angela Northman, that while she may feel offended by an airstrike that kills civilians, she should never tell a soldier that they don’t understand the cost of war.

If you like your movies colored in the moral tones of black and white, with obvious heroes and villains, then this is not the film for you. If, however, you recognize that the best of art imitates, and speaks to, the human condition in all its complexity and ambiguity then you will see in Eye in the Sky perhaps the most powerful and intelligent of films of the post-9/11 epoch. Like the very best visual dramas of our times, it does not provide its audience with an easy resolution, but poses the viewer with the question: What would you do?


M.L.R. Smith is Professor Strategic Theory in the Department of War Studies, King’s College London. His latest article, co-authored with David Martin Jones, is “The Rise of Dark Americana: Depicting the ‘War on Terror’ On-Screen,” Studies in Conflict and Terrorism, Vol. 39, No. 1 (2016).