Eye in the Sky is explicit. No, Dame Helen Mirren does not go Triple X Rated on us (though the film does start with her in bed…). Eye in the Sky is explicitly problematic.
The film opens with a quote from Ancient Greek tragedian, Aeschylus: “In war, truth is the first casualty.” The word truth then fades into the aether as we segue into the epilogue of our protagonists arising ready for a day’s work. Only this is no ordinary day. Dame Helen Mirren (Colonel Powell) gets up at 4:15 and sets off for her military base. Meanwhile, at 20:45 in Nevada, Aaron Paul (Lieutenant Watts) rises bright and early for his night shift down at the airbase.
Screenwriter Guy Hibbert showcases his indebtedness to the genre of Greek tragedy in presenting the action in the events of a single day. The modern update dictates the warped hours of different time zones across a network of interrelated allies in the U.S.A, U.K and Kenyan intelligence services. Tragedy is no longer restricted to the city state, but becomes a global concern, from the Vegas desert to the horn of Africa.
In the aftermath of the 2014 attack on the Nairobi shopping mall that killed scores and shocked the world over, we are thrown into the jaws of Al Shabab controlled streets. The threat from the fundamentalists to the civilian population presents itself once more. Militia patrol the roadblocks and dance in Taliban fashion upon machine gun-turreted pick-ups. Truly, they rule the roost in this part of town. Showboating their shari’ah to the residents of the region.
But screenwriter Hibbert and Director Hood do not present a simple, straight, black and white, depiction of terror. For the targets here are not Al Shabab fighters, but numbers 2,4 and 5 on the allies’ East Africa most wanted list. They are two British subjects and an American citizen, complicating matters beyond the simplistic distribution of justice that a drone strike normally entails. Clearly, blowing up a house full of brown people presents no moral dilemma, but throw in a few westerners and things spiral into complexity.
A complexity that is underscored by the behind-the-scenes electioneering that we see in the boardrooms back home. The mission is intended as a straight capture; to prosecute the target and put her on trial in the U.K. It soon becomes apparent that this idealised objective is no longer possible. From the detachment of Westminster, a mixture of politicians, military figures and attorney generals bicker over the morality, legality and political/propaganda aftershocks of the systematic strike. If this is to be a targeted assassination by Hellfire missile, it has to at least be a legal one in which nobody is personally culpable for any of the aftermath.
Alan Rickman plays devil’s advocate in an almighty post-mortem performance as General Benson. Sitting aloofly behind his laptop, he conducts the symphony of the strike, but his role is primarily political, lobbying his superiors in order to justify direct action and eliminate the target. As he points out, his job is merely to conduct a war, it is the obligation of the politicians to deal with the aftermath. But with a minister sitting in on decisions and soon the Foreign Secretary and US authorities involved, the mission soon becomes a moral malaise, insoluble as everyone seeks to ‘refer up’ and redistribute the authority amongst themselves.
The film achieves its greatest success in allotting sufficient screen time to each party, providing an intense overview of the full operation, from ground zero, Nevada, to the shiny superiority of Westminster. Aaron Paul plays Lieutenant Watts, the innocent party in proceedings who is merely the eponymous eye. His character is intimately human in an intended inhuman, mechanised role. He is an operator and a pilot, but plays the role of the gods in Greek tragedy, detached and omniscient, he sees all from his lofty heights. Only, behind the joystick lies a real person with emotions, empathy, compassion and all that amounts to humanity. The cameras on the drone dictate that this is not a barrel-bomb strike in which the pilot flies in at the speed of sound, drops his goods like change at a counter, and then speeds off into the sunset. Watts can see all. The characters of the world. The victims of a strike. The aftermath. It is his job, after all.
But the key to the gods in Greek Tragedy is that they have no emotions, they know not the tears and sympathy that makes a man, human. Paul shows why he is one of the most engaging onscreen faces of his generation. A bead of sweat here, a throb of vein there, all achieves the onscreen realisation of life in the pressure cooker, thousands of mies away from the consequences of his actions. But the reality still haunts in the moving footage of the screen in front. He cannot escape what he inflicts. This is not divine justice, but human prosecution. By a sad irony, he cannot simply fly away.
‘Prosecution’ in the hands of Colonel Powell (Mirren) becomes an evil that declares the destruction of her target at almost any cost. While the Colonel is such a cold character, the cost is seen in the face of Babou Ceesay (Sergeant Saddiq) whose eyes inject the detached bunker of the U.K military headquarters with that humanity they otherwise lack. He is tasked with the grim job of revising the estimated risk to civilian life and ends up fixing the figures in a fudge worthy of U.S primaries. ‘Prosecution’ comes to mean execution. We might not have the electric chair or the hangman’s noose, but the Hellfire missile is now our death penalty. In a play of many problems, words themselves become problematic.
This is a message with broader repercussions. The law exists but it can be jettisoned and reworked in a flash. Take R2P, or ‘Responsibility to Protect’, which is a global, UN endorsed motion to enable external states to operate militarily in another state in order to prevent the worst horrors of humanity. Instead, it has become a mangled term that basically allows first world countries and evil dictators to drop bombs on whomsoever they deem to be a sufficient threat to the established order. When protect becomes explode and prosecution becomes execution, we need to be wary of the changing meanings of words. A comment worthy of any Greek tragedian.
Image and video from Youtube.