Home » Years » 2016 » Eye in the Sky ••••1/2

Eye in the Sky ••••1/2

Eye_in_the_Sky_2015_film_posterStarring: Helen Mirren, Aaron Paul, Alan Rickman
Director: Gavin Hood
Screenplay: Guy Hibbert
Drama/Thriller/War, Rated: R
Running Time: 102 minutes
Release Date: April 1, 2016


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Scott, I’ve got my eye on you and your review of Eye in the Sky.

(Dr. Scott Allison, Professor of Psychology, University of Richmond)

Aye aye, Captain Greg. Let’s recap.

We’re introduced to Colonel Katherine Powell (Helen Mirren) who has a mission to capture high-level Al-Shabaab extremists meeting in a safe house in Nairobi, Kenya. USAF pilot Steve Watts (Aaron Paul) in Nevada controls a drone for aerial surveillance Meanwhile, undercover Kenyan field agent Jama Farah (Barkhad Abdi), uses an electronic “beetle” for ground observations. When Farah discovers that the terrorists have explosives, the mission turns into a military strike.

Powell discovers that switching the mission from “capture” to “kill” is not so easy. She must get legal clearance from UK Lieutenant General Benson (Alan Rickman) and his team of advisors. There are questions about whether it is permissible to kill British and American citizens, and whether it can be done without American permission and without Kenyan permission. Complicating matters is the appearance of an innocent young girl (Aisha Takow) who is selling bread next to the kill sight. Time is running out for Powell as she pushes for a strike but cannot seem to get the permissions she needs.

Scott, Eye in the Sky Is not your typical hero’s journey. Like last year’s The Martian this movie is layered with three or more stories. However, unlike The Martian this film lacks a strong transformation for its characters. This is also a cause movie (those with a point to make about a particular cause). But unlike other cause movies Eye makes a case for both sides of the argument and leaves the audience to make a judgement about the relative merits of the differing points of view in the story.

I’ll get to the point and expose the ending right away. Basically, to kill the bad guys in the house, Colonel Powell makes a decision to sacrifice a little girl as collateral damage. Her argument (and that of General Benson) is that the bad guys are planning a suicide bombing and it is better to sacrifice one little girl rather than let the bad guys kill 80 or more civilians. Powell makes this decision with cold and calculated math. However, pilot Watts uses the prevailing rules of engagement to delay the decision as long as he can. But in the end the clock runs out. And with all the principals sitting in the safety of their air-conditioned offices, they watch as the little girl dies from the explosion.

Greg, it’s only April but this movie is clearly one of the best films of 2016. What makes it shine is its riveting and suspenseful treatment of the thorny ethics of drone warfare. We are drawn into the horrors of committing violent actions as well as horrors of not performing those actions. We feel both the agony of acting and of not acting, and the pain of those who must make these heart wrenching decisions. Alan Rickman’s final film is one of his best films. He knows firsthand the awful reality of suicide bombs destroying lives and the awful reality of sometimes needing to destroy lives to prevent suicide bombs from happening.

At first I found myself pulled in each direction, taking the side of whomever was making his or her argument at any one time. Eventually it became clear to me which decision should be made, and it was gut-wrenching for me to see it not be made. Yet I sympathize with all parties and with all sides. None of these decisions can be made easily and without anguish. This movie does a brilliant job of presenting both sides with fairness, accuracy, and with so much heart and soul. Like last year’s American Sniper and this year’s Whiskey Tango Foxtrot, I view Eye in the Sky as largely an anti-war film that shows us the senseless horror of killing people, no matter how seemingly noble the cause.

I wish I could agree. That is, I agree this is a well-crafted film told in the same simmer-to-a-boil fashion as 2013’s Closed Circuit. Both are British films and are told in a patient manner. However, I don’t think this is an anti-war film. I think it is a “fair and balanced” telling of the necessity of drone strikes and the tightrope that the highers-up walk when making life and death decisions. It was clear that the military were calculating losses and the politicians were weighing optics. If by anti-war you mean that the message is that “war sucks” then I will agree. But this film goes beyond that simple message. I think the message is “war is complicated.” It doesn’t matter on which side of the argument you fall, this film presented it with accuracy.

There are no heroes here. Truly, everyone lost. Colonel Powell lost no sleep over her decision to sacrifice an innocent little girl to kill suicide bombers. It was simple math for her. General Benson has seen war up close and personal. He didn’t like this choice. He will lose sleep over it. But he knew the alternative and this was the lesser of two evils. The politicians kept kicking the can upstairs until the answer came down that the decision had to be made in the operations room. They just wanted plausible deniability. This is one film where there is no classic hero’s journey – but it is still a compelling and memorable story that spurs debate.

I was thinking about the heroes or lack of heroes here, and my conclusion is that all the main players are one giant heroic ensemble that can be broken down into several different teams. In our most recent book, Reel Heroes & Villains, we present a model of heroism in which “the team” is a common heroic protagonist. We see teams as heroes in such movies as Ocean’s Eleven and A League of Their Own. The teams in Eye in the Sky are Benson’s team, Powell’s team, and Farah’s team. There is even a fourth team in Las Vegas in charge of actually pushing the button that unleashes the drone bomb.

As heroic teams, do they transform? The agonizing decisions they must make must surely change them to some degree, although I suspect that the young rookies in Vegas were more transformed by this incident than were the grizzled veterans (like Powell) who have been so desensitized to violence over the years that they can make these decisions without breaking a sweat. The young Vegas team was in tears knowing what they were about to do, and so I half-expected them at the end to give their superior officer the “you can take this job and shove it” speech. But no speech was forthcoming. We’re left concluding that they’ll come to work tomorrow and kill more innocent little girls. It was horrifying to watch this movie but I think it’s a “must see” because we all need to be horrified about what is going on in this crazy world of ours.


There weren’t any visible mentors in this film either. Each person in the story had an internal code of ethics. For the rookies in Vegas who were flying the drone, that code of ethics is that you don’t kill innocent little girls (that’s not why I signed up, sir). But the outer code of ethics is that you follow the chain of command – and that ultimately won in the rookies’ case.

It was interesting that the United States politicians had no problem blowing up a little girl. They were dismayed that the British high command even took the time to interrupt their golf games with such an obvious answer. The British politicians kept passing the buck until it stuck with the low-level decision makers. Their internal code was to never let something stick. This movie was an analysis of competing inner and outer codes.

Eye in the Sky is a terrific film and is easily one of the best movies of 2016. Never has a movie so effectively portrayed the agonizing moral decision making of political, military, and civilians during times of war. Every member of this ensemble cast shined in their roles. I found myself on the edge of my seat for two hours, and for days afterward I found my mind revisiting the morally complex issues of this movie. We learn that fighting evil only produces another kind of evil in us. I hope this movie gets the recognition it deserves at Oscar time. I give it the full 5 Reels out of 5.

As you noted, Greg, the hero’s journey here is no ordinary journey. Once the mission changes from “capture” to “kill”, the four heroic teams in this film are all sent into the dark unfamiliar world. It’s gut-check time for everyone, and we see impressive physical courage from Farah and huge moral courage from the Vegas team. It seems like the higher up you go in the chain of command, the less courageous and heroic the people — unless of course you agree with the final decision, which is not an unreasonable decision even if I disagree with it. So much is going on here in terms of heroic decision making and action that we’ve only scratched the surface. Still, because the heroism here is a bit messy and difficult to discern (which is maybe the point), I will award less than the maximum rating and give these teams 4 Heroes out of 5.

The mentorship dynamic is also complicated, as there are advisors and people being advised throughout the movie. Yet the chain of advisory command is often questioned, and we’re often left with the sense that it isn’t clear who is in authority and who isn’t. Can you imagine Mr. Myagi in The Karate Kid asking Daniel for karate advice? Yet this is what often happens in Eye in the Sky. Advisors assert authority only to realize they can be overruled, and those who are overruled sometimes rely on loopholes to get their way. The dynamic of counsel and chain of command is muddied further by the multinational nature of the mission. It’s all fascinating but again, because of the lack of clarity (which again is maybe the point), I can only award 4 Mentors out of 5.

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Eye in the Sky is an amazingly balanced “cause” movie that approaches being preachy, but never crosses the line. The performances were all excellent with bonus points to Helen Mirren whom I never tire of watching, and Alan Rickman in his final role. The tension and suspense were slow growing and artfully played out. While I do think this was an extraordinary film, I can think of many that are better. I give Eye just 4 out of 5 Reels.

As I pointed out earlier, this is not a hero’s journey movie. Not all movies follow the classic pattern. Yes there are standard turning points, but this is not a story of transformation of character. It is a story of competing ethics. There were no winners and losers here. Everyone lost. At the end of the day, well-meaning men and women had to choose between one little girl, or 80 unknowns. It’s the devil’s game. I wish there were a “Not-Applicable” rating. I’ll give these characters just 3 out of 5 Heroes.

Finally, one of the mentor types that we’ve been discussing this year is the hidden or internal mentor. This is the kind of mentor who has passed on their mentorship in the form of book learning or a moral code. Since I feel that this movie is a competition of ethics versus codes, it is all about internal mentors at odds with each other. It’s hard rate a character who is never on-screen. Still I’ll award the internal mentors 4 out of 5 points.

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