EYE IN THE SKY

April 14, 2016


I usually don’t do movie reviews but this is an exception due to the technology displayed in “Eye in the Sky”.  This movie has been rated as a 4.5 to 5.0 by three movie reviewers and deserves the rating.  It is a marvelous movie and one I can certainly recommend to you.  Let me set the cast.

  • Hellen  Mirren as Colonel  Katherine Powel
  • Alan Rickman Lt. Gen. Frank Benson (This was Mr. Rickman’s last movie before his passing this year.
  • Aaron Paul as Lt. Steve Watts, United States Air Force
  • Barkhad Abdi as Jama Farah, MI6 operative
  • Phoebe Fox as Carrie Gershon—Weapons Officer, United States Air Force
  • Lian Glen—British Foreign Affairs Officer

The film, directed by Gavin Hood based on a screenplay by Guy Hibbert, and details military personnel facing the legal and ethical dilemmas presented by drone warfare against those using terrorist tactics. The overriding issue is the civilian population endangered by the military activity. The movie was filmed in South Africa in late 2014.

Colonel Katherine Powell (Helen Mirren) commands from Northwood Headquarters (Britain) a mission to capture high-level Al-Shabaab extremists meeting in a safehouse in Nairobi, Kenya. A Reaper drone controlled from Nevada by USAF pilot Steve Watts (Aaron Paul) provides aerial surveillance, while undercover Kenyan field agents, including Jama Farah (Barkhad Abdi), use short-range video bugs for ground intelligence. Kenyan ground troops are positioned nearby to execute the arrest, but are called off when Farah discovers the terrorists have explosives, and are preparing two suicide bombers for what is presumed to be an attack on a civilian target.  Time is of the essence and as the movie progresses there seems to be many more political roadblocks than might seem necessary.  If those individuals in the safehouse are allowed to leave, killing them will be out of the question.

Colonel Powell decides that the imminent bombing changes the mission objective from “capture” to “kill” and informs drone pilot Watts to prepare a missile attack on the building.  As protocol would dictate, she solicits the opinion of her legal counsel about doing so. To her frustration, her counsel advises her to seek approval from her superiors. Lieutenant General Frank Benson (Alan Rickman) is supervising the mission from London with members of the UK government as witnesses, and asks for their authorization. Citing conflicting legal and political views—such as contrasting the tactical value of the assassination with the negative publicity of killing civilians and the status of some of the targets as US or UK nationals—they fail to reach a decision and refer the question up to the Foreign Secretary (Iain Glen).  Impaired by a bout of food poisoning on a trade mission to Singapore, he does not offer a definite answer, first attempting to defer to the US Secretary of State (contacted on a cultural exchange in Beijing), then insisting only that due diligence be performed in seeking a way to minimize “collateral damage”.

Meanwhile, the situation at the house has become more difficult to assess.  Alia Mo’Allim (Aisha Takow), a pre-teen girl who lives in the adjacent home, is visibly in grave danger if the building—and the explosives inside—are struck by a missile. Watts and his USAF colleague Carrie Gershon (Phoebe Fox) can see Alia selling bread just outside the targeted building, and seek to delay firing until she moves. Farah attempts to buy all of her bread so she will leave, but in the process, his cover is blown and he is forced to flee. The suicide bombers are finishing their preparations when surveillance video of them is lost, raising the level of urgency.

Seeking a way to get the authorization she needs to execute the strike, Powell orders her risk-assessment officer to find strike parameters that will allow him to quote a lower risk of civilian deaths. He re-evaluates a strike point and places the probability of Alia’s death at forty-five (45) to sixty-five (65) percent; she coerces him to report only the lower figure up the chain of command. The strike is subsequently authorized, and Watts reluctantly fires a missile. The building is leveled, with casualties in and around it. Alia has moved far enough away to survive the strike, but is injured and unconscious. However, one of the terrorist leaders has also survived, requiring Watts to fire a second missile, which strikes the site just as Alia’s parents reach her. They suffer minor injuries and rush Alia to a hospital, where the medical personnel are unable to revive her and she is pronounced dead. This is a tragic ending to a great movie.  Collateral damage ending the life of an innocent little girl.

The script is fascinating but the scenes depicting the capabilities of drone activity is truly engaging.  The field operative is unable to get close enough to determine the identities of everyone in the safehouse and a definite “make” is necessary before firing the Hellfire missile. The story line is more complicated because one terrorist is British and one American.  Both must be identified before action can be taken.  The drone sent to capture video of those inside is a “bug”—a flying bug with a camera.  The drone is directed by a controller no bigger than a smartphone with directional buttons guiding its flight path.  The people are identified but the little girl selling bread is within the “kill zone”.  Delays occur until the proper clearances and permissions are granted.  The Reaper drone is flying at twenty thousand feet and circles the area waiting on permission to engage.  All the time, video is given of the girl selling bread.  Lt. Watts knows an airstrike incorrectly placed will kill the girl and others within a certain radius of the bomb blast.  He repeatedly asks for probabilities of destruction relative to collateral damage.

I suspect the drone activity in the movie is at least somewhat accurate and if this is the case the technology is stunning.  To control a drone over the horn of Africa from Nevada is truly amazing.  To do so in “real time” is even more impressive.  The personal toll on the pilot and the weapons officer is pronounced.  They will never forget the experience and I’m sure PTSD will be a factor in their future.  Killing innocent children is a huge burden but the individual wearing the bomb vest would have killed scores of innocents had he been able to carry out his attack.

I can definitely recommend this movie to you.  It truly demonstrated American capabilities as well as the strain in fighting terrorism in today’s world.

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