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part of a small rebellion | by maryann johanson

Eye in the Sky movie review: in the eyes of 21st-century warriors

Eye in the Sky green light

As entertaining on an escapist level as it is irrefutably engaging on a level that is essential for citizens who are players in our political environment.tweet
I’m “biast” (pro): love the cast

I’m “biast” (con): nothing

(what is this about? see my critic’s minifesto)

This is warfare today. It’s a colonel in a bunker in outer London (surrounded by computers) and a general in an office building in Whitehall (surrounded by politicians) and a drone pilot in Las Vegas (flying a robot armed with missiles and also, more importantly, with cameras, from thousands of miles away) and a facial-recognition technician at a workstation in Pearl Harbor and an agent of the Kenyan military on the ground in Nairobi collaborating in an operation to capture most-wanted terrorists in a civilian suburban neighborhood in a country that neither the US nor the UK is at war with. It is ultra high-tech and real-time across multiple time zones, assisted by who knows how many orbital satellites or what level of near-AI computing power. It feels, on one hand, like science fiction. It is, on the other hand, indisputably what is happening now.

If this is war in 2016, then do we need to call it world war?tweet Are we, in fact, living in the middle of World War III? Because these things that are indisputably happening now are not only international in scope, they transcend the polite fictions of national borders in a way that only a view from orbit can facilitate. Or maybe this isn’t war. Is this, perhaps, policing, a new kind of policing that is moving faster than the legalities of borders and ideas about national sovereignty have been able to catch up with yet?

None of those are questions that Eye in the Sky explicitly asks: they’re just things that have bubbled up as I’ve thought about this stupendously important and provocative film in the week since I saw it. Director Gavin Hood (Ender’s Game, X-Men Origins: Wolverine) and screenwriter Guy Hibbert (Five Minutes of Heaven) raise plenty of other moral, legal, and ethical conundrums, but they do not attempt to resolve them — because they’re too big and too difficult and probably do not even have definitive answers — even as they tackle head-on notions of how politics and propaganda play off each other in our new world in which a kid with a cell phone and a YouTube account who happens to be in the vicinity of, say, a drone missile strike on somebody’s house, can be as influential as the big badass countries with their science-fiction arsenals.

There is so much going on in Eye in the Sky, and every single bit of it is thrilling on levels intellectual, philosophical, and visceraltweet. This is, on the surface, a thoroughly riveting potboiler that, perhaps, invents a new subgenre: the modern military procedural, one not too far removed from, say, The Hunt for Red October. It also puts a new spin on the idea of found footage, for much of how we come to understand what is going on comes via the very same satellite and drone cameras and other spy video tech that Helen Mirren’s (Trumbo, Woman in Gold) colonel and Alan Rickman’s (A Little Chaos, A Promise) general and Aaron Paul’s (Triple 9, Fathers & Daughters) drone pilot and Kim Engelbrecht’s facial-recognition tech are using to make their decisions. This is a movie about people sitting around watching computer screens, and debating and arguing about what they are seeing and how they should react to it, and because the film unfolds almost in real time, we see what they see at the same time they see it, and at the same distance. Which makes it easier for us to imagine ourselves in their shoes and able to contribute to the debate, not something that might be said about many movies about war or the military: most of us have not ever stood on a battlefield. But now war is waged from a conference table in a comfy office building, or from in front of a rig that looks like an elaborate videogame. That’s much more likely a scenario that many of us could see ourselves in.

But this is not a film, either, that has any interest in facile dismissals of what is going on here as “mere” videogame warfare: every character onscreen is too actutely aware of the human stakes to see it as a game. Those human stakes are the crux of the conundrums: when new intelligence, which only suddenly comes into existence because sneaky spy cameras discover it, necessitates a change of, literally, battle plan, how to decide what is the best thing to do? And what is “best,” anyway? Is it okay to pursue a course of action that will probably result in the death of an innocent now in order to save a far larger number of lives later? Is it fair to make such a decision when that one innocent life has a face you can see now – thanks to your scarily capable technology — and those future lives saved are only hypothetical at this point? Yes, this whole movie is basically a drone-warfare trolley problem. But that’s amazing. Baked into Eye in the Sky is how it forces you to think about what you are seeing, and how you would make the sorts of decisions the characters onscreen have to make. And that’s before you succumb to the reality that none of this is hypothetical, that these are the sorts of decisions that real people who are not horrible people are being forced to make every day.

The movie that Good Kill should have been, Eye in the Sky is, astonishingly, as entertaining — on a basic escapist level of transporting you away, for a couple of hours, from your own life and getting you caught up in someone else’s — as it is irrefutably engaging, on a level that is essential for us as citizens who are players in our civic and political environment. This is a perfect storm of adult cinema experience… and one that is vanishingly rare at the moment.

green light 5 stars

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Eye in the Sky (2016)
US/Can release: Mar 11 2016
UK/Ire release: Apr 15 2016

MPAA: rated R for some violent images and language
BBFC: rated 15 (infrequent bloody moments, infrequent strong language)

viewed at a private screening with an audience of critics

official site | IMDb | trailer
more reviews: Movie Review Query Engine | Rotten Tomatoes

If you’re tempted to post a comment that resembles anything on the film review comment bingo card, please reconsider.

  • Allen W

    Saw this yesterday and liked it a lot. It does a nice job building a sense of dread, and making you feel for the quandaries most of the main characters find themselves in. It doesn’t take the easy out, or the obvious stinger — which improves the movie over typical Hollywood fare.

  • Rebecca Armstrong

    It wasn’t a bad movie if you set disbelief aside and think of it as a war fantasy. It strains credibility to believe such a perfect setup, with four “high value targets” in a room, two of whom actually have their vests strapped on, leaving no doubt or ambiguity. And the only collateral damage is one little girl.

    It isn’t exactly consistent with actual news reporting of the drone war, where targets are almost always ambiguous and disputed, to the point where the definition of target has expanded to mean “any brown guy who was in this general area at the time”. And collateral damage reports which number in the dozens, including entire wedding parties with many children.

    I understand that there’s a utility argument to be made for drone warfare, but whitewashing it to such an unbelievable extent takes away from the seriousness of the movie and makes it seem like a propaganda piece. Specially when the reality is only as far as your newspaper or TV set.

  • It strains credibility to believe such a perfect setup

    That’s why I likened it to a “trolley problem.” That’s not realistic either. It’s specifically designed to get you thinking about ethics.

  • Rebecca Armstrong

    That’s true enough, but the drone war is very much a current reality in many countries, and a source of controversy in others. Reducing it to an abstract philosophical problem that doesn’t represent how this war is conducted borders on propaganda I think.

    It presents a very rosy picture of the US, with people agonizing over tough decisions, when in reality news reports make it seem more like a carnival shooting gallery done for laughs. It’s usually kill now and let God sort out his own.

  • Danielm80

    Can you cite some of those news reports? I keep hearing about high levels of PTSD, even in drone pilots. That suggests that people in the military are agonizing over tough decisions, at least after the fact. Some of us may question whether they made the right decisions, but that doesn’t mean the decisions were made without difficult deliberation.

  • Rebecca Armstrong

    This is a movie discussion forum, so I hesitate to get into an overtly political topic because I don’t want to break any rules here.

    However, if you want some cites, I’ll offer a few and leave it to MaryAnn to delete my post if she finds them objectionable here:

    160 kids killed by drone strikes in Pakistan alone: https://www.thebureauinvestigates.com/2011/08/11/more-than-160-children-killed-in-us-strikes/

    CIA’s reports on drone strikes disputed by the NY Times: http://www.nytimes.com/2011/08/12/world/asia/12drones.html?_r=1

    Civilian death toll in the drone war: https://www.thebureauinvestigates.com/2011/08/10/most-complete-picture-yet-of-cia-drone-strikes/

    Whoopsies, drone strikes accidentally kill 24 soldiers instead of militants: http://articles.latimes.com/2011/dec/23/world/la-fg-pakistan-cia-drone-20111224

    This is a very tiny sampling, there are hundreds more if you care to google them.

    I’m not actually denying anyone their PTSD, drone operators are humans after all. I’m just saying that drone operations sound more like a shooting gallery rather than such carefully engineered situations as the movie showed, with two guys caught in the act with their suicide vests strapped on and one lone little girl selling bread who got caught as CD.

    And they couldn’t even make her a sympathetic character. According to them, the only reason she got caught is because she dishonestly gathered up the bread she’d already sold, dusted off the dirt, and tried to resell it again. If she’d been honest she’d be safe. Her own fault, really.

  • Danielm80

    I agree that the number of civilian deaths is too high, and I agree that each of those deaths is horrible. I’m just perplexed by your suggestion that the drone strikes seem “like a carnival shooting gallery done for laughs.”

    I get the impression that the people who authorized the strikes are taking them very seriously. Here are three quotes from the articles you cited:

    The officials say C.I.A. drone operators view their targets for hours or days beforehand, analyzing what they call a “pattern of life” and distinguishing militants from others. They use software to model the blast area of each proposed strike. Then they watch the strike, see the killed and wounded pulled from the rubble, and track the funerals that follow.

    An F-117 fighter or a Reaper drone each carries the same 500-pound bombs, “but the Reaper has been sitting for hours on target,” allowing the operator time to study who will be hit by a strike, said Colonel Sullivan, who is on the staff of the secretary of defense.

    There are indications that the Obama administration is making efforts to reduce the number of children being killed. Following the incident in September 2010 that killed Din Mohammad’s children, and another strike just weeks earlier in which a further three children died, there has been an apparent steep fall in the number of child fatalities reported by media.

    That is partially in line with claims by some US intelligence officials that drone targeting strategies have been altered to reduce civilian casualties. Although the Bureau has demonstrated that CIA claims of ‘zero casualties’ are false, there are fewer reports of child casualties since August 2010.

    Of course, if the officials were willing to lie about the number of casualties, they may also have lied about the preparations before the strikes. But that doesn’t mean that the pilots were firing at people gleefully, as if they were playing a game. I’m pretty cynical, but not cynical enough to think that they were laughing at the loss of human life. I don’t see any basis for that claim.

    I still agree with the Unicef statement: “Even one child death from drone missiles or suicide bombings is one child death too many.” And you may be right that the movie minimized the horror of the strikes, but they were still devastating to watch. And I’d like to believe that the pilots–who watch the actual attacks in real time–are also devastated.

  • This sort of comment is absolutely fine here. It’s a political movie and we’re discussing its politics. No foul here at all.

    she dishonestly gathered up the bread she’d already sold

    Oh no! Do you really think the film depicts as dishonest? Or just desperate?

    The civilian deaths in this idiotic ongoing “war on terror” are horrific abd inexcusable. But I don’t see anything in the links you provided that suggests that Western drone warfare is “a carnival shooting gallery done for laughs.”

  • Rebecca Armstrong

    I don’t know what was in the director’s mind, whether he intended to show dishonesty or desperation or both, only he knows his intentions. I can certainly see it leaving the impression of dishonesty in the viewer’s mind.

    He builds a lot of tension into the moment – they can’t delay the strike because the targets may walk out of the house and escape, and then dozens of other people would die. The little girl sits there oblivious, selling bread. Two times at great personal risk people try to get her to move by buying all her bread. And she just picks up bread she’s already sold and no longer belongs to her, wipes off the dirt, and sells it again. All this tension is focused on this one little girl, so naturally a lot of viewer emotion is invested in her at the moment.

    I suppose viewers come in different personalities, some may sympathize. But I know plenty who’ll also think “if only her parents had taught her to be honest, this wouldn’t have happened, what infuriating people these are”. Which to the average slightly racist westerner pretty much amounts to “brown people, hey? What can you do, they are what they are.”

    The desperation you mention doesn’t come across to me, she looks well-fed and happy, her parents apparently love her, she plays and smiles like any little kid.

    As for the links, I just picked what I could find on the first page of my Google search. There are plenty more I recall reading over the years that were much worse. My fault for not putting more time into the search.

    I agree that “shooting gallery” was hyperbole, but it was a deliberate exaggeration on my part to pick the other extreme from the carefully engineered one of maximum culpability of the targets, absolute certainty of their identities, minimal collateral damage, extreme deliberation on part of the drone operators, lots of tears and sorrow at a single civilian death. I was trying to say the reality is nothing like this extreme, if anything, it’s closer to the other extreme. Probably I shouldn’t have said “shooting gallery” because it’s obviously not true, and seems to have diverted this discussion into debating whether it’s like a literal shooting gallery or not. That was not my intention.

  • But you still think it’s all “done for laughs”?

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