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Obama’s Drone Wars Get Their Hollywood Close-Up in ‘Eye in the Sky’

Helen Mirren stars in the ‘flawed but riveting’ portrayal of the wrenching dilemmas of the military’s new intimate killing

Judith Miller
March 23, 2016
Photo courtesy of Bleeker Street Media
Helen Mirren in a still from the film 'Eye in the Sky.'Photo courtesy of Bleeker Street Media
Photo courtesy of Bleeker Street Media
Helen Mirren in a still from the film 'Eye in the Sky.'Photo courtesy of Bleeker Street Media

Two unforgettable cast members of Eye in the Sky, a gripping film about the morality of drone warfare, have no spoken lines. Hovering in silence above a group of Al Shabab terrorists in a house in a crowded Nairobi suburb, a cyborg hummingbird on a lamppost overlooking the house and an even smaller surveillance bee perched on a rafter inside the house provide a steady stream of video of those inside, as well as their activities. Higher above them is an American surveillance drone, the Reaper.

Thousands of miles away, from the safety of an intelligence headquarters in London, a government office in Whitehall, and a claustrophobic trailer at Creech Air Force near Las Vegas, coalition military officers and senior civilian officials are monitoring a secret joint mission to capture several “high value targets” inside that house—among them, a radicalized British woman convert to Islam who is married to a commander of Al Shabab. They have come here to welcome two new young recruits to the jihad, a Brit and another whose nationality is unknown.

A British colonel, Katherine Powell (the incomparable Helen Mirren), has been tracking this deadly duo for six years. This is the closest she has ever come to them. The price of the mission has already been high. A Kenyan agent who presumably helped track them to this house is brutally murdered in the film’s early frames.

Everything is ready. Kenyan forces assembled near the house outside the neighborhood that jihadists control prepare to seize Powell’s elusive prey as soon as they leave the house. But the planned “capture” suddenly becomes a “kill” mission when the Orwellian mechanical bug shows the young recruits strapping on suicide vests and recording martyrdom videos. Where are they headed? What are the targets? The surveillance drones don’t yet hear; they can only see. Mirren, her boss, Lt. Gen. Frank Benson (Alan Rickman), and their American counterpart conclude that the terrorists must not be permitted to leave that house, that the U.S. surveillance Reaper must fire the twin Hellfire missiles it carries below its wings immediately to prevent the recruits from delivering their payloads at shopping malls or other vulnerable civilian targets. This should be an easy call. And it is until an innocent 9-year-old girl wanders into the kill zone and sets up a table to sell bread.

The tension in this film resides in the debate among the drone warriors and their civilian bosses over whether to strike and the latters’ dogged, even cynical efforts to assure that they have not only legal authorization, but also political cover to strike, despite the obvious peril to the young girl.

The moral and ethical dilemma raised by the scenario is as old as war itself and not uncommon in literature. In The Brothers Karamazov, Dostoevsky asks whether it is acceptable to murder an innocent child to save the lives of many innocents. What has changed as depicted in this flawed but riveting movie is the spread of all-seeing, if not all-knowing technology, the creepy techno-military jargon it inspires, including “collateral damage”—a notion that has always existed in war—and the fact that that technology itself has transferred the conduct of war from warriors to legal advisers, politicians, and government’s permanent bureaucracy.

Politicians, it turns out—no spoiler alerts required here—are often more callous, and even more cynical about such choices than the military men (and women) responsible for fighting wars.

The technology, too, is creepy but mesmerizing, and no longer the stuff of science fiction. Speaking at a luncheon after a screening, Gavin Hood, the film’s British director, talked about how hard he and screenwriter Guy Hibbert worked to achieve technological verisimilitude, or truthiness. The bug the U.S. military has developed to spy on terrorists may be louder than the replica in this film, but something like it exists. So, too, does the hummingbird, as well as dozens of other robot disguises aimed at enhancing surveillance capabilities. And, no surprise, the use of such drones by the U.S. military, not only for surveillance, but for missile and bomb strikes, has soared. As early as 2010, Air Force drones had carried out more than 200 missile and bomb strikes in Afghanistan alone.

And after nearly a decade of waging long-distance war via video screens, the Air Force was constrained last year to reduce the number of flights by armed surveillance drones from 65 to 60 a day, despite calls for even more drone coverage in Iraq, Syria, and Yemen. The military had no choice. American pilots were burning out. A disproportionate number of the 1,200 trained Air Force drone pilots were leaving military service. As early as 2013, the New York Times reported, a Pentagon study showed that drone pilots were experiencing PTSD and other psychological stress-related problems at the same rate as pilots of manned aircraft who were deployed to Iraq or Afghanistan.

The stress on drone pilots is well portrayed in this film, agreed Christopher Drew, a New York Times reporter who has covered drone warfare and its effects on pilots. Drew, one of seven Times reporters to recently win a George Polk award for the paper’s coverage of U.S. Navy SEALS, said the film works despite its inaccuracies. Pilots no longer direct such attacks from trailers at Creech, he notes. They now work in buildings. Nor is the military indifferent to the stress placed on such pilots. After deadly strikes, a team of psychologists, counselors, and sometimes chaplains stands ready to meet with pilots to discuss the mission and any psychologically debilitating aftereffects. But overall, Eye in the Sky is “the most realistic, honest effort” he has seen to explore “what this kind of warfare and intimate killing is like.”

Because of drones, politicians and senior officials are now often part of the battlefield command. In 2010, then CIA Director Leon Panetta was asked to make the call on whether a Predator drone could strike a residential compound in Pakistan where Taliban leader Baitullah Mehsud was staying after a surveillance drone spotted his wife massaging his neck on the roof alongside him. Panetta ordered the strike. President Barack Obama has personally reviewed each name on the military’s kill list. Such decisions are not made casually.

Hollywood hates war and loves making insufferably sanctimonious weepies about it. But there are few such false steps in Eye in the Sky. Yes, it would have been better if the filmmakers had not opened the movie with a shot of the little girl at play (Aisha Takow), or if she had not been so utterly adorable, a picture of innocence. It would have been smarter had they left her fate ambiguous. They do not. But such missteps are vastly overshadowed by the film’s emotional punch and its candid, dramatic portrait of the costs and benefits of the use of America’s anti-terror weapon of choice.

Above all, the film is powerful because of its actors. Barkhad Abdi (“I am the captain now” from Captain Phillips) is memorable as a Somali undercover agent who directs the tiny surveillance drones and risks his own life to save the girl’s. Aaron Paul is the archetypal good soldier—an unassuming, tough-minded pilot willing to question orders. Though the script was originally written for a man, Helen Mirren dominates the drama as a cool, steely, disciplined warrior determined to accomplish her mission. This is another of her masterful performances. And Alan Rickman’s portrayal of her superior officer reminds of what we have lost with his untimely death. When a British MP accuses him of being immoral because of his support for the strike, he replies that he has personally witnessed the aftermath of five terrorist bombings. “Never tell a soldier that he does not know the cost of war.”


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Judith Miller, Tablet Magazine’s theater critic, is a former New York Times Cairo bureau chief and investigative reporter. She is also the author of the memoir The Story: A Reporter’s Journey.