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Eye in the Sky

“Eye in the Sky” is about one of the oldest topics in art –the incredible cost of war – as well as one of the newest subjects under the sun:  our astonishingly increased ability to see and understand that cost.

One of our popular responses to warfare drone technology is that it makes taking the lives of other people far too removed from reality: piloting a drone from a dark room on a Las Vegas air force base doesn’t look very different from playing a video game in a dark basement in a Las Vegas suburb. Shooting real people looks and feels more and more like shooting monsters on a TV screen.  But “Eye in the Sky” highlights a different side of the same situation.  It is far easier to pull the trigger on the battlefield, when the enemy is trying to kill you. The action is easily justified. But from a thousand miles away, in no danger at all, perhaps it is much more difficult, knowing that you are taking lives while, at that moment no one is trying to take yours.  What is abundantly clear is that any action a soldier takes is going to be endlessly scrutinized; by superiors, by politicians, and likely also by journalists and/or newsertainment anchors, and often by anyone with a YouTube account.  How has this vastly increased level of scrutiny changed the way we engage in warfare?

These are some of the questions “Eye in the Sky” wrestles with, through a simple enough setup. Helen Mirren plays a British colonel who is zeroing in on a British national who has been recruited by radical Islamists and become a terrorist in Kenya. Politicians, led by Alan Rickman,  have gathered to watch the capture in a London board room, thanks to a drone piloted by Aaron Paul in Las Vegas.

Just before the capture, they glimpse suicide vests in the Kenyan house where the terrorists are, and Mirren wants badly to change this from a capture mission to a kill mission, in order to prevent whatever bombing attack the terrorists are about to carry out.  But it’s not simple; the politicians need to debate, the pilot needs clear rules of engagement and a collateral damage estimate before he can proceed. Is this red tape, or a necessary process before human lives are taken? Director Gavin Hood won’t tip his hand.  It’s up for you to decide.

To complicate things much, much further, there is an innocent little girl within the impact radius of the attack.  If the drone missiles are fired, her survival is uncertain.  But if they don’t fire, the suicide bombing being planned will undoubtedly take many more lives.  Do you trade the life of one innocent girl for the lives you are potentially saving?  Again, Hood keeps things very even and balanced, refusing to do the hard work for you.

Of course I’m not going to tell you what is decided, or how the movie ends.  Some will be satisfied that they made the right decision; others most certainly won’t.  That’s what makes this a riveting and intense viewing experience.

But I want to step back a little and just make this observation: the conditions of warfare haven’t significantly changed, probably since there have been wars.  Soldiers and their superiors have had to make terrible decisions in every war there has ever been. They have often come back from war shocked and scarred by the things they did, wondering if they made the right choices. This is what war is, and always has been.  What has changed has been our ability to observe it – to really see, not just sanitized reports “let’s hear it for our boys!” reports or glorified war movies – but the minute to minute reality of war.  I don’t imagine “Eye in the Sky” gives us a full picture of what it’s like to be a soldier – no mere movie could do that – but it takes us one step closer.  That’s what makes it a great film, and one that really everyone should watch.

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Posted in All Reviews, by Will Krischke.

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