Kudos to director Gavin Hood, producer Colin Firth, et al., for making a commercial film that presents and provokes debate on a controversial public policy issue: America’s drone war on terrorists in the Third World. Both sides are vividly presented. Pro: a drone strike will eliminate three identified terrorist leaders and two jihadi mules armed with suicide vests that could kill hundreds of innocent civilians in Nairobi if allowed to proceed. Con: the strike has minimal, if any, legal justification and will cause collateral damage including the probable death of a sweet 11-year-old Kenyan girl. Then there is the “political” issue: if the suicide bombers succeed, the terrorist group Al-Shabab will be blamed; if the drone strike succeeds, the West will be blamed and Al-Shabab will benefit.
While the debating points may be balanced – depending, perhaps, on your view of the subject going in (more on this later) – the filmmakers’ sympathies clearly lean in one direction. The principal proponents for the strike are an obsessed field commander (Helen Mirren) and a buffoonish superior officer (the late great Alan Rickman in an unfortunate final role), while the legal go-ahead comes from a weasely Attorney General. Meanwhile, the girl who epitomizes the collateral damage is presented as angelic, if not saintly; and the American and British underlings who have to follow orders – the on-site legal adviser, the sergeant assessing CDE, and the American pilots who have to pull the trigger – are shown as caring, empathetic and principled. Similarly, the only “conscience” in the administrative war room in London is a lone woman in some unspecified position, who seems to have no authority except morality. She expresses one conclusion the audience is free to reach when she tells the general that his whole performance has been “disgraceful.” The film, however, lets neither her nor us off easy by giving Rickman the more powerful rebuttal: “Never presume to tell a soldier the costs of war.”
From a dramatic standpoint, the movie is sensational. Somehow we always know how it will end, yet the route there keeps getting more complicated. We are involved emotionally as well as intellectually, but one never clouds the other. My quibble, and it is not small, is with the ways the deck is unnecessarily stacked. There was no reason the Mirren character had to be made so obsessed. Her view becomes more reasonable once the weapons and suicide bombers show up, but they were not part of the equation when she ordered her Somali operatives into the rebels’ armed compound, apparently unconcerned about their survival; nor was she unduly concerned that the limit of her mandate was “capture” when she started twisting facts to achieve a “kill.” Moreover, without more background information her targets, British citizens including a woman, didn’t appear to pose an imminent threat to anyone. As for the Rickman character, the film introduces us by showing him struggling to buy the right model of an expensive doll for his daughter, perhaps to let us know that these people all have real lives outside their jobs, perhaps to draw a third world/first world contrast with the Kenyan father who has just taped together a primitive hula hoop for his child. The problem, though, is that we don’t feel the general is quite focused on his job. He is brusque, in a “let’s-get-this-over-with” manner that translates as, let’s not think too much here. And then there is his goofy haircut, not the kind you’d expect to find on a senior military officer. For me, the pro-strike arguments could have been made just as well by serious, thoughtful soldiers (and politicians) who recognized and acknowledged the risks they were advocating, and that would have made their arguments, and the film, more compelling.
But would that have changed my view as to the rightness, or wrongness, of the ultimate decision to strike? Or what if the wonderful Barkhad Abdi had succeeded in removing the bread-selling girl from the danger zone? We are still left with the situation where British and American troops are killing people – never mind their citizenship – in a foreign country without that country’s knowledge or authorization. Even when we know there are suicide bombers intent on killing innocent civilians, what right have we to intervene? Is there a threat to America or Britain? No. The only justification is the belief that America is “the world’s policeman,” and anywhere we see wrongdoing we are entitled to intervene. Many people, including most of our current Presidential candidates, hew to this belief. I stubbornly cling to a Golden Rule of foreign policy: how would we feel if Russia sent missiles into downtown Miami to kill some Chechen terrorists? If they shouldn’t be allowed to do it, why should we? Then there is the practical matter that, so far as I understand, the drone strikes aren’t helping us. Yes, they help American and British politicians who can say they are doing something about terrorists, and they trumpet each successful strike as a battlefield victory. But the strikes are doing nothing to win the war. There is plenty of evidence that our drone warfare creates a multiple of terrorists for every one it takes out, and the situation in every country where we have struck with drones is just as fraught as it was before. In short, they are the product of a bad policy, and nothing in Eye in the Sky suggests otherwise. After making its arguments pro and con, the movie leaves us with two final images: the young American pilots, emotionally shaken if not shattered from their experience of pulling the trigger in Las Vegas and watching people in Nairobi die; and the young Kenyan girl with her hula hoop, resurrected from death to grace the final credits.