Eye in the Sky
“In war, truth is the first casualty.”
War has become such a normalized topic in the U.S. Even though we haven’t seen ground warfare on our soil since the 1800’s, our constant military involvement around the globe has made it a casual dinner conversation, and the topic of many testosterone-fueled films. But Eye in the Sky isn’t an American war movie. The director is South African, the screenwriter, British, and the perspectives shown are more troubling and varied than the classic triumphant war flick.
There are many casualties of any war. In using armed forces to pursue the “greater good,” truth is certainly not the only compromise we make. We sacrifice our children. We sacrifice our futures. Eye in the Sky is a take on the impossible moral quandaries which arise in wartime. It pulls back the curtain on many things we take for granted, and presents its characters with situations we all hope to never face.
Helen Mirren (Woman in Gold) stars as no-nonsense Colonel Katherine Powell, whose British forces team up with U.S. and Kenyan allies on a mission to capture two of the world’s most-wanted terrorists. The stakes go through the roof, however, when the team discovers the makings of an imminent suicide mission inside the Kenyan house they are staking-out. Powell and her Lt. General Frank Benson (Alan Rickman, Lee Daniels’ The Butler) must make quick and difficult assessments of the volatile situation. And the American air crew (Aaron Paul, Breaking Bad; Phoebe Fox, Black Mirror) assigned to provide an “eye in the sky” perspective are suddenly faced with the possibility of carrying out a targeted drone strike.
The film is a window into modern warfare, at least as far as my limited knowledge can tell. We certainly don’t live in the era of Braveheart or Gods and Generals anymore. Modern war seems to be an unending saga of secret missions, drones, and quick takedowns. It’s the dazzling technology and lightning-speed communication from Western forces vs. the brutish tactics and explosive vests of Somali radicals.
In a way it’s a wondrous sight: the tiny cameras and invisible microphones seem like a much better idea than two armies lining up across a field to shoot one another. On the other hand, it made me wonder...who has access to this kind of inside information? Do we really know the extent of modern technology and warfare tactics, or is someone just making it up to tell a good story?
One thing is clear from the get-go: Colonel Powell is straightforward in her desire to apprehend -or eliminate- the criminals who have eluded her for years, causing so much death and destruction. Yet Mirren manages to play her even-handedly, and I viewed her not as an unfeeling commander, but a seasoned, realistic agent driven to minimize the damage that warfare brings. Benson, also, brings a stoic realism to his scenes. I really felt his increasing frustration at being the only military presence in a room full of politicians and government officials, and the late Rickman offers a performance to par with his usual subtle magnificence.
Young pilots Carrie and Steve provide a fascinating and necessary contrast to the age and experience of Powell and Benson. They are novices, hypersensitive to the deadly consequences of an airstrike and filled with youthful compassion. I felt a lot of camaraderie with them. As young Americans, they have grown up filled with hope, dreams, and high standards of justice. There is something about that demographic (my own) which is deeply sensitive to violence and injustice in a way, I suspect, that previous generations of military operatives did not have. Perhaps this is because we grew up amidst globalization and the Internet, and can put voices, faces, and stories to what many consider numbers and statistics.
War is problematic, the filmmakers are quick to show. Young men and women are brought into the military not because of patriotism or passion, but so they can afford a college education. Politicians and government officials far removed from the actual battlefield in comfortable conference rooms. Different countries may come together in hopes of defeating a common enemy, but they still have radically different priorities.
I suppose all I can do is hope, too. I hope it’s true that drones are sent only to prevent even greater death tolls. I hope my leaders have deep human empathy. I hope military decisions are mostly made for welfare and not for personal and financial gain. After all, I come from a military family. My dad was in the Air Force reserves for 20 years; my brother is a high-ranking officer nearing retirement. I know they are good and wise, even though I don’t know what they’ve seen or done.
It’s hard to have that kind of hope most of the time. It’s hard to believe, in this day and age, that my leaders and commanders are making choices out of integrity and nobility. But at the end of the day, I’m just one small person in a world full of war. At the end of the day, hope is all I’ve got.