'Eye in the Sky' reveals that the cost of war never changes
“Eye in the Sky” (2016) - Director Gavin Hood created a film about modern warfare, and while watching his picture, I could not help but think of a very different movie, Stanley Kubrick’s “Paths of Glory” (1957). “Paths of Glory” takes place in No Man’s Land during WWI where the hostilities between France and Germany became a sick and twisted mess. The armies from both sides hunker down in trenches carved 12 feet or so into the soft earth, but inevitably, the apprehensive French soldiers rise from their own manmade ditch and scamper across the mud and crawl around barbed wire - while under a constant stream of whistling bombs - to somehow reach the Germans. A nuclear blast could be the closest comparison to hell on Earth, but WWI trench warfare probably fits as a close second.
The setting of “Eye in the Sky” is not nearly as bombastic but still demonstrates the cost of war in a very effective way. In 2016, a joint British/U.S. mission attempts to coordinate a drone attack in Nairobi to kill the numbers 2, 4 and 5 persons on a terrorist watch list. From at least three different locations - including Creech Air Force Base in Nevada and the Permanent Joint Headquarters in London - military personal converge on a conference call to manage the 21st century assault.
The armed drone - cruising thousands of feet above Nairobi’s surface - is piloted by Airmen Steve Watts (Aaron Paul) and Carrie Gershon (Phoebe Fox) just outside of Las Vegas while about 20 high-ranking personnel drink coffee and watch the events play out on computer screens and an undercover agent (Barkhad Abdi) captures events from the ground. British Col. Katherine Powell (Helen Mirren) - also known as “Mom” - is running and singularly focusing on the coordinated operation while others - like her colleague Lt. Gen. Frank Benson (Alan Rickman) - help advise.
Screenwriter Guy Hibbert’s screenplay feels like a scaled-down, three-act play, as important strategic and emotional conversations, in both darkly lit and brightly lit rooms, routinely shift between London, Nevada, the events on the ground in Kenya, and (occasionally) Singapore and China as well. The well-written script introduces the main players in benign, non-military-like ways, but they quickly “sober up” when the film places them in the deadly-serious circumstances of their jobs. Relying on intelligence, the piloted drone needs to first locate the terrorists and then kill them with minimal collateral damage.
Collateral damage, of course, refers to the death of innocent civilians, and although zero fatalities certainly are ideal and righteous, we start to believe the word “minimal” routinely factors into the equation. The movie unquestionably conveys that this particular workday routine is not unlike any other day, as the culmination of weeks, months or years of dropping bombs from 30,000 feet and witnessing the collateral damage takes its toll in many forms. Some internalize the emotional damage while others learn to dismiss it, and Hood and Hibbert offer different points of view from the collection of celluloid participants.
When officers and soldiers fight under the most brutal conditions in 1915 or use “surgical elimination” of one’s enemies in 2016, “Eye in the Sky” reminds us that - even with evolutionary leaps in technology - war has not evolved. (3.5/4 stars)