After exploding onto the international film scene with the virtuosic 2005 debut “Tsotsi,” made in his native South Africa, director Gavin Hood gave the term “sophomore slump” new meaning by ignoring filmmaking elementals in favor of blatant Bush-bashing in his 2007 crossover picture “Rendition.” Now, after big-budget forays into the fantasy realms of Marvel Comics and young adult sci-fi, Hood is back for more topical political storytelling with “Eye in the Sky,” which confronts the role of drones in the West’s ongoing war on radical Islamism. Given the cast of Hollywood elites, from Helen Mirren to Aaron Paul to the late Alan Rickman, it would not be unreasonable for one to expect more bleeding-heart propaganda. But Hood clearly learned from his mistakes on “Rendition,” crafting an issue movie that largely retains an objective perspective.
This is not to say that the movie is detached or removed from the internationally significant events it depicts. Rather, it eschews an ultimate philosophical judgment on drone warfare by simply depicting the impacts and ramifications that this modern form of combat has on the careers and personal lives of a diverse ensemble of characters. Mirren is Colonel Katherine Powell, the British commanding officer eager to shoot a Hellfire missile at a terrorist safe-house in Nairobi when she learns that high-value jihadist targets are inside, even if it means killing at least one civilian (a young girl selling bread outside the facility). Rickman is the Lieutenant General who must convince higher-ups and lawyers in the British government to approve the action, racing against the clock as each official perpetually passes the baton upwards to avoid personal legal culpability for any potential casualties. Paul and Phoebe Fox are the U.S. Air Force drone pilots carrying out the mechanics of the mission from a trailer in Las Vegas, both on the verge of buckling under the moral weight of what they are being ordered to do as they observe the girl via the drone cameras. Barkhad Abdi (of “Captain Phillips” fame) is the local Somali liaison tasked with piloting short-range remote-control cameras to see inside the terrorist compound, mere feet from the proposed target site.
While Hood’s approach to politically polarizing material has become more measured since “Rendition,” save for an egregious number of manipulative cutaways to the poor Somali girl in danger (and a cringe-worthy sequence of her dancing over the credits), it’s safe to say that Guy Hibbert’s screenplay nudged the filmmaker in the right direction. Hibbert understands that this is a movie, not a treatise, so he allows his very human characters to face moral quandaries surrounding drone warfare and come to their own conclusions, rather than force certain characters to adopt the “right” political position and others the “wrong” one. For Mirren’s Col. Powell, the numbers are what’s important: sure, one innocent girl may die, but the jihadists will blow up dozens with their suicide vests if they don’t take them out now. For Rickman’s Lt. Gen. Benson, what’s right is not a personal decision, but a matter of whom he can convince, which is a far different process with drones than when Western soldiers are endangered on the ground. For Paul’s pilot, the mediation of a screen provides little comfort when he knows he is directly causing the loss of an innocent life, no matter how many he may save in the process. By tightly focusing on a single incident, Hibbert’s screenplay doesn’t try to generalize about drone warfare; it merely asks the viewer to begin to consider the ethical dilemmas that the Western world faces with the advancement of battlefield technology.
And yet, casting “Eye in the Sky” as a cerebral movie, while meant as a compliment, also does it a disservice. Make no mistake, this is an edge-of-your-seat exercise in tension, a breathless “will they or won’t they” story about a military strike. Gene Siskel, infamous for deriding films like “Aliens” because they put child characters in danger just to ride the audience’s nerves, would have loathed it. But I found the movie tense less because I was concerned for the Somali girl’s wellbeing than because I felt the mounting weight of split-second decisions that could have enormous sociopolitical consequences. The top-notch cast, especially Rickman in a great final live-action performance, expertly convey the visceral toll of their characters’ ever-present knowledge that things could go desperately South at any minute. In so doing, “Eye in the Sky” becomes a movie of immense scope, even though its focus is on just a few people on a single day. That’s really the lesson here: in the age of modern technology, small numbers have become capable of massive things.