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Film Review

Eye in the Sky

Few issues in modern warfare are more controversial today than that of drone warfare. Drones, unmanned aerial vehicles carrying high definition cameras and armed with rockets and bombs of great precision, are changing the nature of warfare. A pilot (not the traditional definition) sitting in a control room in Nevada can locate, target, and kill someone on the other side of the world. Once targeted, the weapons have great accuracy through laser guidance. In theory, a highly effective way of striking at the enemy without risk to our own troops. Although initiated under President Bush, President Obama has greatly increased the use of drones in striking terrorists in Afghanistan, and lately in East Africa.

But the question that looms large is the identity of the target and the collateral damage issue. Is the observed target whom we think and what might be the costs in terms of civilian casualties? Sometimes it is not so easy to know who is a terrorist and who a farmer planting crops near a road, especially when viewed from a camera 10,000 feet above. Is this a wedding party, a small market, or a gathering of terrorists? Civilians have always been killed during military operations, sometimes deliberately, sometimes inadvertently. This problem is as old and ugly as warfare itself. A German tank hiding in the shadow of a building in a French village would be targeted by allied aircraft with the best weapons available then, such as "dumb" bombs. Sometimes the tank was destroyed but at other times half the village was leveled with many civilian deaths. Or look at the indiscriminate bombings of major cities during WW II by both sides: London, Antwerp, Dresden, Hamburg, Berlin in the west, and the fire bombings of Japanese cities. And most infamously, the atomic bombs on Nagasaki and Hiroshima. So the targeting of civilians is nothing new. But today we have the means to kill in a much more precise fashion, and Western governments have rightly become more insistent that civilian deaths be avoided, sometimes at the cost of compromising the military mission. The short term effectiveness of drone warfare seems convincing, but the long term effect is problematic. Unintentional civilian casualties from drone strikes in Afghanistan have alienated important segments of the population, even in areas where the Taliban are not popular. It raises the question, just as in Iraq, can you shoot your way to victory, or does it take far more fundamental changes in those societies? Changes that we cannot make.

The other aspect of drone warfare contributing to the controversy is the often secretive nature of these campaigns. Our society is dependent upon the White House, the military and the CIA (who run their own separate drone missions) disclosing the extent of these attacks and their effects. How many deaths, both terrorists and civilians? The military has to constantly deal with the difficult question of how many civilian deaths are acceptable to accomplish a particular mission?

Eye in the Sky is the second major film to deal with these issues. The first was Good Kill, an American film which opened last year to strong reviews. Interestingly enough, this English film is directed by Gavin Hood, a South African born director and actor, best known to American audiences for his films Tsotsi (2005) and Ender's Game (2013). Tsotsi won an Oscar for best foreign film. The original screenplay for Eye in the Sky is by Guy Hibbert, an English screenwriter. Hood/Hibbert's film opens with a young African girl playing at home on the edge of Nairobi with her parents. Her father repairs bicycles and her mother bakes bread, which her daughter sells on the street. The film then shifts to Helen Mirren's character, in an English suburban house, getting up, taking care of her dog, and getting dressed in a military uniform. She is a colonel in British intelligence and for four years has been attempting to capture a elusive English woman who has become an important element in a Somali terrorist group. She drives into a highly secured base and walks into her office where sergeants are tracking a military operation through a drone camera. The scene shifts again to the drone control base in Nevada, where a pilot and co-pilot are controlling a drone now circling over Nairobi. We see the ground through the drone's camera, with remarkable definition. The camera is focused on a building that may contain some of the terror group, but the building is located in the middle of houses on a public street. The scene shifts yet again, to a meeting room in London. Inside, the head of British anti-terror warfare, played by the well known English actor Alan Rickman (who sadly died two months ago), and various cabinet undersecretaries. They too are following this operation and in constant contact with Mirren's character. But as in most military operations, events often do not go as planned. The audience sees what the participants see on their screens, direct feeds from the drone camera and video linkage with all the other participants in the operation, including the pilots in Nevada.

The story is complex and often surprising, and the pacing and tension continue to escalate. Hood is really a master here and no one is going to fall asleep. The ensemble performances are excellent, and of course Mirren and Rickman are standouts. Film buffs will recognize Barkhad Abdi, playing an undercover Somali agent, as the actor who played the head of the kidnap gang in Captain Phillips (2013). Cinematography is vivid and this is best seen on a big screen. Eye is a accomplished film, a real thriller in a military setting. I loved the film and my only criticism has to do with the extensive discussions of collateral damage. Is it likely that this would have been so prolonged and probing in the real situation? But in any case, a powerful and timely film. At this point, only the Embarcadero and the Kabuki are screening Eye in the Sky but it will surely open more widely here. Screening time: 102 minutes.

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