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Thriller 'Eye in The Sky' Examines Ethics of Drone Warfare

  • Penelope Poulou

Should the life of one innocent be sacrificed in the war against terror? Gavin Hood’s film "Eye in Sky" poses this question as an American – English coordinated drone attack is set to kill a terrorist preparing for a suicide attack that could kill dozens maybe hundreds in Nairobi, Kenya.

The riveting thriller by award-winning filmmaker Gavin Hood, follows a joint American-British military drone operation about to strike a terrorist cell in Nairobi, Kenya. The dramatized account raises strategic and moral implications of the operation as an innocent civilian enters the parameter where a remote controlled missile is expected to strike.

Through a tiny spy drone that looks like a beetle, military officials in different parts of the world watch on their screens as a group of terrorists, led by Briton Susan Helen Danford, prepares for a potentially large scale suicide attack in Nairobi.The officials contemplate upgrading their capture-only drone mission to a killing one. But to the frustration of mission leader Colonel Catherine Powell, played by Helen Mirren, the military and political hierarchy delays, mulling over the strategic, political and personal cost of such a decision.

Meanwhile, time is running out.

Barkhad Abdi stars as Jama Farah in Gavin Hood’s EYE IN THE SKY, a Bleecker Street release.

Barkhad Abdi stars as Jama Farah in Gavin Hood’s EYE IN THE SKY, a Bleecker Street release.

The stakes get even higher when a child enters what would be the kill zone of a drone strike.

Deep into a bunker at a place called Permanent Joint Headquarters in Northwood, London, Colonel Catherine Powell is anxiously watching the video feed on the room's large computer monitors. As the leader of the operation, she is ready to kill the terrorists. Her goal, as she sees it, is to avert a potentially imminent massacre by suicide bombers. But to her dismay, others in the hierarchy take a different angle as they consider the political and diplomatic implications of such an attack. One of them says about the terrorists: “If they kill 80 people, we win the propaganda war. If we kill one child, they do.”

Helen Mirren stars as Col. Katherine Powell in Gavin Hood’s EYE IN THE SKY, a Bleecker Street release.

Helen Mirren stars as Col. Katherine Powell in Gavin Hood’s EYE IN THE SKY, a Bleecker Street release.

No easy answers

Hood says "Eye in the Sky" shows there are no easy answers when it comes to drone warfare. “Will you sacrifice, will you definitely take one innocent life in order to possibly prevent the loss of 80 lives? What if there were five innocent lives close to this kill zone? What if the estimate of the loss of life (by the terrorists) was only 20? What if it was 2,000?" he asks.

The filmmaker hopes "Eye to the Sky" will generate discussions among his audiences on the human, political and strategic costs of drone warfare. “If you are not there and you are only attacking from the sky, how [do you expect] the local population to respond?“ he asks.

Hood says his film also shows how, in time-sensitive situations, physical distance among the decision-makers and a sluggish bureaucracy could delay or impede a decision. While Colonel Powell argues her case remotely with General Frank Benson, another significant military component in the operation played by the late Alan Rickman, the drone pilots, fingers on the button, are locked in a container-like structure in the U.S. state of Nevada, awaiting instructions. “They are not actually in touch as human beings," the director says. "They are in touch through the veil of the computer screen and that itself raises questions: Is it easier to pull the trigger when you are not facing the enemy?"

Gavin Hood (left) as Lt. Col. Ed Walsh, Phoebe Fox (center) as Carrie Gershon, and Aaron Paul (right) as Steve Watts in EYE IN THE SKY, a Bleecker Street release.

Gavin Hood (left) as Lt. Col. Ed Walsh, Phoebe Fox (center) as Carrie Gershon, and Aaron Paul (right) as Steve Watts in EYE IN THE SKY, a Bleecker Street release.

However, Hood and screen writer Guy Hibbert have developed the character of drone pilot Steve Watts as someone who also evaluates the situation and questions the legality of Colonel Powell's shoot-to-kill mission. Hood says his film, though a fictionalized account of a drone operation, has been thoroughly and deeply researched. "We spoke to people from all areas. From the military lawyers, who were involved in this, to drone pilots, to military intelligence officers. We had a drone pilot permanently on set with Aaron Paul (who portrays Watts) to make sure that everything is accurate."

Real life dilemmas

The superb cast is led by award-winning Helen Mirren playing steely Colonel Catherine Powell, the late Alan Rickman interpreting an acerbic but cool under fire Lt. General Benson and the evocative Aaron Paul as the emotional drone pilot Steve Watts. They drive home the point of "Eye in the Sky" -- that as precise the drone missiles are, they are still guided by often conflicted human beings.

(Left to Right) Actress Phoebe Fox, director Gavin Hood and actor Aaron Paul on the set of EYE IN THE SKY, a Bleecker Street release.

(Left to Right) Actress Phoebe Fox, director Gavin Hood and actor Aaron Paul on the set of EYE IN THE SKY, a Bleecker Street release.

As the filmmaker notes, “there are military people who seriously question the use of the drone and there are people within the military who think it is the best thing that’s ever happened."

Gavin Hood says the debates we see unfolding in his dramatized account are very much like the debates happening in real mission control rooms, and elsewhere in the real world.

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