“What you witnessed today with your coffee and biscuits was terrible. . ..”
Now that drones are an important part of warfare, does it make war a little more sterile? Is it just a video game with actual explosions and real blood? Is it too easy to set aside the morality involved in waging war when it is done from the safety of somewhere half a world away? In Eye in the Sky, we watch in near real time as what was a simple military mission moves to new levels and decisions must be made rapidly that could have serious consequences.
Col. Katherine Powell (Helen Mirren) heads a mission to capture a British subject who is part of a terrorist plot in Kenya. From her bunker in London, she monitors video from an American drone piloted by Lt. Steve Watts (Aaron Paul) and A1C Carrie Gershon on her first day in the job. The plan is to make sure all the terrorists involved are in a house together and then send the Kenya military to arrest them. But when the meeting moves to an armed area, the capture can’t happen. When it is discovered that there are two suicide bombers being prepared in the house, the mission begins to creep into more deadly options. Meanwhile, General Frank Benson (Alan Rickman) is briefing a group of cabinet officials about the mission. As the mission changes, they are called on to expand the rules of engagement. When a girl selling bread sets up her table within the blast area of a possible missile attack, the question of collateral damage becomes a personal issue.
Because this involves different governments and nations, the responsibilities are never clearly marked. Often those who must make decisions want to “refer up” to higher levels. But because the suicide bomber could leave at any time, there is little time to debate what is legal or moral. While the Christian Just War Theory is never explicitly brought up in the film, many of the issues in the film touch on the way society has come to judge the morality of war in a world of global terrorism.
We watch all this, as do the people involved from a distance looking at the screens that they see. It is tempting to think that they are doing something very similar to what we do—look at a screen as something not quite real. But the little girl selling bread—an innocent bystander who we see clearly and understand the danger she faces—becomes a symbol for all the questions that war by drone brings up.
I have long been a fan of director Gavin Hood because of his ability to show moral ambiguity. (For example, see his earlier films Tsotsi or A Reasonable Man—or even X-Men Origins: Wolverine.) This is a film that creates a situation that morality must be judged within an ever changing situation. Is it just a numbers game? Does the possibility of killing a young girl outweigh the possibility of suicide bombers in a shopping mall? While for some of those involved (especially the politicians) this is something of a theoretical exercise, the closer one is to actually having to act (such as Lt. Watts and Airman Gershon) it becomes a very existential event. It will challenge who they understand themselves to be. It will be something that they will have to live with the consequences whatever they will be. Actually, it is something that all those involved hold responsibility for.
The film doesn’t expect us to judge for certain if what happens was the right thing to do. There are too many variables that come into play. Rather, in the end we are left wondering if the right choices were made at various points along the way. Does the debate over what should or shouldn’t be done actually make things worse? Is there a way to judge an “acceptable” level of collateral damage? (The American government officials in the film seem to think so.) Should we mourn the loss of life that seems inevitable? Do we expect or want the military people involved to feel sorrow over this, or should they be hard hearted and stoic? Perhaps what I appreciate most about Eye in the Sky is that it is not a film that gives us answers, but gives us many worthwhile questions to ponder.
Photos courtesy of Bleeker Street