Eye in the Sky is a war movie, but an unusual one, and not only for the lack of battlefield scenes. It takes us behind the scenes of the crucial event – and not merely ‘behind the scenes’ in the sense of showing us the stage directions, but of introducing us to the director, actors, theatre manager, and the employees who raise the curtain and sell the tickets. It shows us the painful decisions that have to be made by the people who actually carry out political and military policy.
Helen Mirren plays the tough, smart, and pragmatic Colonel Katherine Powell, the officer in command of a U.S./British anti-terrorist operation in Kenya, managed remotely from the UK through the wonders of military technology. The intention was to locate and capture a small terrorist cell housed just outside Nairobi. The mission changes abruptly when drone surveillance reveals that the group are preparing for a suicide bombing.
A great deal of time is taken setting the scene, although the extra footage is neither wasted nor tedious. We are introduced to Colonel Powell and her associates; to their mission; and to the various individuals who are monitoring the operation. These include Lt General Benson (one of Alan Rickman’s final roles), an experienced officer who is supervising the operation; and members of Kenya’s military, working under Colonel Powell. They are tracking a group of extremely dangerous radicalised Muslim terrorists, including a woman from the UK and an American man, both of whom traveled to Kenya to join with their efforts. Their capture has been a high priority for years.
We are shown the technology being used, which is impressive. Not only is the terrorists’ location being watched continually through distant ‘eye in the sky’ drones, and with such clarity that individual faces can be recognised, but when necessary by small mobile camera drones, disguised as tiny mechanical hummingbirds or flying insects, which can view targets closely, even enter a house unobserved, and transmit the video images. Missiles are available on remotely piloted drone planes which can pinpoint not only a building, but a specific room, with near-perfect accuracy.
At the same time, we are also introduced to some of the people on the ground in Kenya. Jama Farah (Barkhad Abdi) is an undercover operative in Nairobi who undertakes the most dangerous work, that of directly observing or disrupting terrorist targets when remote surveillance is inadequate. Finally, adjoining the house where the terrorists are meeting is the home of the Mo’Allim family, a charming married couple with a young daughter, who are secretly moderate and progressive Muslims in a largely radicalised area.
The action proceeds slowly as we become accustomed to the unusual visual format. Because the personnel involved with the operation are in immediate communication with each other, the film pans easily back and forth between Powell and her staff, Benson with his government representatives, the soldiers controlling the satellite images and handling the stand-by drone missiles, almost as if they were in the same building. The people on the ground in Kenya are slightly more removed, but the images provided by surveillance drones are so detailed, and so constantly in view, they feel physically present as well.
The situation intensifies when the group of terrorists are seen to begin preparing suicide vests with a considerable payload of explosives. Powell calls for an immediate missile strike on the house, before the suicide bombing can be carried out. Approval of the plan seems imminent – until a little girl, the daughter of the Mo’Allim family next door, arrives and sets up her vending booth just outside the target house – where she will very likely be killed if the strike is launched. In cold military language, an assessment of possible collateral damage must be made before the missile is fired, which places the responsibility on Powell’s supervisors: Benson and his team of lawyers and political analysts.
From here, the level of suspense amps up significantly, as the film moves through an agonising series of negotiations, red tape, rationalising, legal and political evasion, all while precious time passes and the window of opportunity threatens to close.
Efforts are made to induce the child to change location; to alter the trajectory of the missile slightly; and to find an alternative approach. Opinions diverge; the government representatives who would normally seem like the voice of reason, continuing to urge restraint or delay, begin to sound merely oblivious to the facts. Concerns about the government’s reputation come into play, and decisions are nervously relegated to senior government offices, while the suicide bombing preparations continue to move forward.
Although the need for military action is established from the outset, every opinion and point of view is granted a hearing, including that of the soldier responsible for pulling the trigger. The stress of having to put innocent civilians at risk is not discounted, but neither is the urgency of preventing the terrorists from completing their attack.
After such a lengthy period of bargaining, consultation, and compromise, marked by the awareness of time running out, the prospect of a genuine attack feels shockingly real. The cinematography, as throughout the film, adds to the immediacy of the event. Unlike most war films, no effort is made to minimise, or to reason away, the stress or grief associated with being involved in such a mission.
In spite of prolonged scenes of what may sound like endless negotiations rather than action, the film never loses its tension. The script is tight and holds the viewer’s attention with virtually no lapses.
The characters are carefully chosen to demonstrate a range of attitudes and personality types. Lt. Gen. Benson is a senior officer with long experience in combat, but the character is introduced while agonising over the purchase of an appropriate toy for one of his grandchildren, presenting him as a well rounded human being rather than a two-dimensional soldier. Colonel Powell is more serious and implacable, but it is made clear that she is not unconcerned with ‘collateral damage’ but merely determined to prevent still greater mayhem. The minor characters, including the Kenyan civilians, are real and sympathetic. The squabbling lawyers and politicians are put in a less positive light, as they ignore the critical decision in question and instead try to mitigate bad publicity in advance, however the mission may turn out. All are effective, due to an ensemble cast which is excellent down to the most minor role.
Eye in the Sky is successful as a war drama and as a suspense film; and no doubt as a conversation starter as well.