Review: Compelling ‘Eye in the Sky’ doesn’t go far enough

Last weekend, I finally got a chance to see “Grave of the Fireflies,” a notoriously bleak 1988 Japanese animated film about two starving war orphans at the end of World War II. It pulls no punches, tearing your heart out repeatedly in its quest to convince you that the concept of war is fundamentally evil.

I bring this up because “Eye in the Sky,” a buzzworthy British movie about the complicated nature of drone warfare, fails to have the same kind of impact as “Grave of the Fireflies” because it refuses to take a real stance and focuses more on the perpetrators of war than the victims.

Helen Mirren is a colonel who has been on the hunt for a high-value terrorist for six years, and she’s finally got them in her sights, holed up in a house in Nairobi, Kenya. Since a capture operation is not feasible and the house contains the makings of suicide vests, she decides to take the target out with a drone strike.

The drone is operated by Aaron Paul and Phoebe Fox, both of whom are relatively inexperienced, neither of them ever having participated in a strike before. Mirren barks orders at them in between bouts of dealing with Alan Rickman (in one of his final completed films), a British general who has to repeatedly get permission from a rotating cast of ministers and counselors and secretaries, who are all hesitant to deal with the legal and political consequences of civilian deaths.

It takes so long to make the call to launch missiles because the operation becomes increasingly precarious due to a number of unpredictable variables appearing along the way. The main problem is a little Kenyan girl selling bread to passersby well within the blast radius, meaning she would be gravely injured, at best, and dead, at worst.

Can we aim at a different part of the compound to give her a better chance of survival? Can we send a field agent to buy all of her bread and make her leave before the strike? Most importantly, are we more willing to live with killing one girl or failing to stop a suicide bombing in a crowded area? 

These are the main points of deliberation among the cast throughout the film, and it’s incredibly tense. Mirren is essentially the villain, wanting to strike as soon as possible and trying to reduce the girl’s chance of dying only to please politicians.

Unfortunately, the writers were more interested in starting a conversation about drone strikes than taking a firm stance. They dreamt up an ideal scenario in which not striking potentially means the deaths of dozens, even though drone strikes in real life routinely kill multiple innocent civilians.

As a society, we should be well past the point of having conversations about drone strikes. That particular mode of warfare has done little to quell global terrorism; indeed, the argument has been made that the ever-present threat of death by sky robot in the Middle East only radicalizes locals against the west even more.

No concern is shown for the possibility of planting the seed of resentment in the girl or her family, or giving any of them PTSD. Instead, we focus almost exclusively on those who are safely tucked away in different corners of the world making these decisions.

I’m glad “Eye in the Sky” explicitly shows the consequences of drone policy at the end in the form of the charred corpse of a child, but it comes just moments after one character tells us drones are a necessary evil. 

The filmmaking is remarkably tight and the performances grand, but when you decide the truth is somewhere in the middle like that, you only benefit the status quo. “Eye in the Sky” is thought-provoking and recommendable on a number of levels, but I wish it had gone further.