Monday, November 21, 2016

Eye in the Sky

Eye in The Sky (2016; dir. Gavin Hood) is a procedural film. It's similar to Zero Dark Thirty (2012; dir. Kathryn Bigelow). It focuses on a group of British intelligence military and government officers in the chain of command responsible for ordering a drone strike on a house in the Middle East where suspected terrorists are meeting. It suggests that surveillance technology has advanced to such a point that from a drone flying at an altitude of 21,000 feet cameras can provide a crystal-clear image of street-level activity. We see not only a full-size drone in this film, but also bird- and a cockroach-sized drones—all equipped with cameras and capable of flying quietly from one location to the next. The film raises significant issues about privacy. Is there any place in the world where we’re free of potential surveillance by governments or corporations or private individuals?

But the main concern of Eye in the Sky is not privacy. It shows us how government and military officers fastidiously seek to protect a nine-year-old girl who is selling bread on the street in front of the house they intend to strike. She's inside the kill zone, where there is a 65% chance she’ll be killed. Everyone from the drone pilot sitting in a closed room watching the girl at her table to intelligence and military government officers in a meeting room in London thousands of miles away is involved in the decision.

The main character is an upper-level military officer, Katherine Powell, played by Helen Mirren. She's been tracking one of the terrorists (a British-born woman) for five or six years, and for the first time she has her terrorist within her sites.  It is important to her that a strike be launched--not only to prevent terrorist attacks but also for her own satisfaction. Significant moral and ethical debates occur in this movie. Most everyone in the chain of command doesn’t want to make the decision to make the drone strike (and perhaps kill the girl) and instead seeks to pass the buck on to someone else. Even the order to the drone pilot to make the strike is delivered in words that seem to give him the final decision, though it really isn't his to make. This film is about is passing the buck.

Eye in the Sky is also about the care and concern the various individuals involved in the chain of command pretend they are showing for the life of the nine-year-old girl whom we see in one scene after another. Katherine Powell is apprehensive about the girl but more concerned about getting her terrorist. In the end, she pressures a mid-level officer to underestimate the risk to the girl—his low estimate allows the strike to occur. One might argue that the only truly false person in the film is Powell. But in another sense all of the characters are false. All show concern for the girl but not for the lives of anyone else. The film wants to show these people as exercising restraint and moral compunctions. It never questions the morality of the drone strike itself. Even if one feels that ultimately a strike is necessary to save lives, it is logical to assume that the film would at least question the legitimacy of drone strikes and kill zones and risks to an innocent population in general. That never happens. To me this is a significant failure, though perhaps one could argue that the film leaves such questions to be asked by its viewers. Moreover, by focusing on collateral damage, maybe it is suggesting that no matter how much technology and moral compunction one might apply in order to avoid inflicting harm, harm is the inevitable consequence.

Zero Dark Thirty did subtly question the mission that led to the killing of Osama bin Laden. I don't think it argued that bin Laden shouldn't have been killed, but at least it questioned the act, and showed the main character Maya’s anguish over her involvement. In Eye in the Sky, only the drone pilot and his assistant seem anguished.

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