Movies do not typically offer a nuanced view of Western Foreign policy, defence and the war on terrorism. Hollywood producers and their imitators identity with the hawkish and imperialist in a bid to make their thrillers simple binary, good versus evil affairs, in which the superior secular moral stylings of civilised nations go up against barbarous dark skins intent on turning the world into a medieval pastiche.
There’s room in the market then, for greater realism, doubt, and ambiguity, or as some would call it, a story informed by realpolitik. Who better to tell such a tale than X-Men Origins: Wolverine director Gavin Hood, who assembles a great cast, including the late Alan Rickman, to educate both liberals and conservatives on the process and pitfalls of combating the other? That irresistible sneer aside, Hood’s made his movie with great sobriety and care, even if the scenario’s mechanics, engineered to explore the movie’s political and moral themes, could have been more adroitly handled.
Eye in the Sky is effectively a real-time thriller, in the 24 mould, but realised without that TV show’s bloodlust and demonization of the enemy. The setup surrounds an assembled group of jihadists in a Nairobi domicile, a radicalised UK national amongst them (just to make the decision chain that much longer), being monitored by a transatlantic group of military colonels, airforce drone operators, and politicians. As the situation’s complicated by collateral damage concerns and the nationality of the terrorists, the cold calculus changing with each new piece of information and change in circumstance, we’re treated to a lesson, with an air of authenticity, in how terrorism is fought – without borders, with expensive kit, and with legal and moral opinion relentlessly offered.
Should Aaron Paul launch his missile (from a workstation in Nevada) despite the risk of killing a young girl selling bread, or wait, with the risk that those with a penchant for exploding vests will leave and disperse? Who should take responsibility for the strike and the loss of innocent life – ministers, the secretary of state, the prime minister? Is something being legal the same as it being right, or does cold hard pragmatism have to have the final say? This is meat for our movie plate and there’s plenty of it, served without recourse to idiot histrionics or jingoism.
In fact, the movie makes a very strong case for humanity and understanding to inform military affairs – personifying each part of the equation in the form of the hard pragmatist, the weary old soldier, the minister for the Today programme, and the hearts and flowers liberal who doesn’t think the death of innocents can ever be justified. But ultimately the film comes out for the military, with Rickman’s General eye rolling his way through each wave of politicking before making it clear that soldiers should be left to fight as they see fit. The narrative supports that conclusion because every dilemma faced has only come about as a consequence of indecision and legal imposition from those representing the liberal conscience of you the taxpayer, whose judicial and ballot box vengeance they fear more than bombs.
Not for nothing does the film draw parallels between Rickman’s family, a daughter unseen but represented by a birthday gift, and the Nairobi bread seller and her clan whose lives the Colonel’s operation could destroy. He’s qualified to know best, says Hood, because he understands the human equation, but also that in the real world a degree of hypocrisy and self-interest is the necessary evil that defeats the greater threat. A robust defence of drone warfare then, but one that recognises the impossible choices and inevitable human cost that comes as part of the deal.