Eye in the Sky Is the Quintessential Modern War Film
The war film is one of cinema’s most enduring genres; nearly every major conflict of the past century has been depicted on screen—multiple times. Films that wrestle with the rapidly changing nature of war, though, are rarer. As drone warfare continues its slow march into public consciousness, Eye in the Sky is the best movie yet to tackle the legal and moral quagmire surrounding modern technological warfare.
To do that, Eye in the Sky goes granular, telling the story of one particular mission on one particular day. In the movie, opening wide today, British colonel Katherine Powell (Helen Mirren) oversees a secret operation to capture a terrorist cell in Nairobi, Kenya. When the mission uncovers a more immediate threat than anticipated, though, the situation escalates. There’s no Normandy landing, no guns-and-mud Vietnam scene; there’s no pulling back, Syriana-style, to examine the context of the conflict. There’s just a British colonel, some American drone pilots, some undercover agents, and a smattering of government officials. Because that’s how international conflicts are resolved now—one clandestine move at a time.
Throughout its 102-minute runtime, Eye in the Sky raises many questions, from who has the authority to authorize force to whether minor casualties are an acceptable loss if they mean preventing an attack that kills thousands. And it depicts those questions as more than just thought experiments, but as things that stack and snarl, paralyzing decision makers who are playing by outdated rules of war.
The main argument within the film is whether the British government, aided by American drone technology, can go after its own citizens if those citizens are plotting an act of terrorism within the borders of a friendly country. For director Gavin Hood (Tsotsi, Ender’s Game), that lack of clarity is the foundation of the film. “In traditional military conflict, war was fought between nation-states, and the battlefield was the conflict zone,” Hood says. “What is the battlefield now? It’s less and less defined by geography and more and more defined by where that ideological enemy moves to.”
Far-Flung Participants, Cutting-Edge Tech
Where war used to mean a devoted push into a geographical region, Eye in the Sky shows how conflict has become an almost Taskrabbit-like system: remote contract workers executing hyper-specific objectives. Powell has a team in England, and a team of government overseers, led by Lieutenant Colonel Frank Benson (Alan Rickman, in one of his final roles), watch from a separate situation room. Meanwhile, drone pilots Steve Watts (Aaron Paul) and Carrie Gershon (Phoebe Fox) are in Las Vegas. Powell enlists help from the American Geospatial Analysis Unit, which is stationed in Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, to use facial recognition to confirm the identities of people captured in drone images. The powers-that-be also seek authorization from the US secretary of state on a diplomatic trip to China, the British foreign secretary, and the National Security Council at the White House. That’s at least eight locations, seven of which are operating thousands of miles away from the actual site.
There’s a lot of cutting-edge tech in Eye in the Sky, but Hood has no reservations about acknowledging the film will very quickly be out of date. Aside from the Reaper piloted by Watts, there’s a hummingbird drone—based on an actual piece of hardware—that does reconnaissance outside of a house, and an even smaller beetle drone, based on technology that has been commissioned and developed, but isn’t in the field yet.
The beetle isn’t entirely accurate, since it’s using a proprietary design based on developmental technology, but Hood spoke to the developers to find out what still needs to be worked on so Eye in the Sky could depict problems accurately. “It’s not the size of the cameras, or transmitting images, or even making something mechanical fly like an insect,” he says. “The problem is battery life. So we put that in the movie, because flight and transmitting high definition imagery sucks too much juice.”
Hood says he even had to cut back on depicting the current capabilities of these devices to help audiences process the events of the film. The beetle drone, for example, wouldn’t actually need help covertly landing inside a house. It has stereoscopic cameras that can map out a space, and then be directed to land itself to continue capturing surveillance information.
Even if Hood is right, and military technology makes his film feel dated within five years, Eye in the Sky is still one of the few war films attempting to depict modern warfare realistically. It’s not fetishizing spy technology, nor loudly proclaiming its pitfalls. And yes, ambiguity can be frustrating to watch, but shouldn’t it be? Nothing about drone war is simple, and being baffled by its problems is the point of Eye in the Sky—even if it is just political theater.