Eye in the Sky opens with a quote on black. “Truth,” the title card waxes, “is the first casualty in war.”
The point is resonant and well taken, but it’s hard to say if the film itself agrees with the adage at all, and, even if we’re to assume it does, whose truth is liable to atrophy in war is extremely ambiguous, if not purposefully obscured.
Eye in the Sky is basically told in real-time as different military personnel debate whether or not to clear a drone strike on a Nairobi home in which three most-wanted extremists prepare for a filmed suicide bombing. We jump around between Colonel Powell (Helen Mirren), who strategizes on-base alongside a military lawyer and collateral damage analyst, Lieutenant General Benson (Alan Rickman, in a posthumous release) who consults members of parliament at a conference table, Steve (Aaron Paul) and Carrie (Pheobe Fox) who fly the plane that may-or-may-not launch the Hellfire missile, Jama (Barkhad Abdi) who spies on the ground, and a Nairobi family, who are politically unrelated, become entangled in the military dispute nonetheless.
The film is crucially structured around frustration. It puts the drone strike at its center, such that when different characters–members of parliament–prevent and challenge the drone strike, the audience is apt to sigh, laugh, or shake their head at the delaying of a high-stakes deadline–a narrative inevitability. The audience, thus, becomes complicit in the “shoot first, think later” mentality and unwittingly adopts a pro-drone strike position for the duration of the film.
If you’re thinking, “case closed! This movie is a clear case of military propaganda and harmful xenophobia,” you’re right. And, it’s important to note that even as we’re privileged to jump around the globe to different characters, we’re never privy to the extremists, but through surveillant military cameras, such that they’re never given a narrative voice. But, the film is careful to make its ambivalences much more precarious, such that the ideologically charged message of the film fulfills an insidious, just-illegible position. Crucial, here, is the Nairobi family, which actually opens the film. Seemingly, the family’s–a bike repairman, a breadmaker, and their young daughter–function in the film is to deploy the converse, anti-drone strike argument, as if to articulate, “What about collateral damage? What about the innocent civilians that wind up in the crosshairs of these foreign occupations?”
Mainly, it does this by working to humanize the family throughout the film. The father, despite the extremism that surrounds him, believes in educating his daughter and allowing her to play (with a hula hoop, which catches the eyes and heart strings of Steve and Carrie while they hover over the village, believing they’re involved in a capture rather than kill mission). This is troubling, because it hierarchizes the lives of only certain brown people–ones with more Western values, “innocent” children–more than others, as if some third-world lives have more value than others. The family enters the central conflict when the daughter, Alia, posts up within the zone of highly likely collateral damage to sell her mother’s bread, triggering a new line of debate and a new set of stakes that prevents the detonation. This is the biggest problem of the film. Alia is not there to problematize the drone strike and foreign military occupations. Rather, she temporarily encourages the audience to take an anti-strike stance, but this position is not stably maintained, meaning that her ensuing function is to soothe the audience about their militaristic stance and masturbate the audience’s self-congratulatory ability to feel compassion. An audience member is less likely to leave haunted by the effect of drone strikes on innocent civilians than they are to pat themselves on the back for at least weighing the comparative benefits of the drone strike, critically and comprehensively, before mentally and silently resigning themselves to the necessity of the strike, effectively condoning her potential death.
What’s more, the film shows the military personnel in favor of the strike to be engaging more rigorously with ethical questions than the members of parliament who refuse to take the strike lightly. The anti-drone camp is shown to have their judgment marred by speculation of political damages and the presence of “one, sweet girl,” while Powell and Benson constantly iterate that if one girl doesn’t die, scores more could. It’s impossible to ignore that the most consistent opponent of the strike, Angela Northman (Monica Dolan) is portrayed as annoying, uppity, and incapable of listening to reason, further leading the audience by the hand to align with the pragmatic, strategist side rather than the humanist one.
Eye in the Sky doesn’t know what it is. It’s a mess of signs and messages. Why? To sell tickets, naturally. It is able to simultaneously speak to the pacifist and the war-monger without ardently alternating either. But, at the end of the day, the ambivalence isn’t didactic or dialectic, it doesn’t serve to animate complications. It merely undercuts the film’s ability to make a poignant claim one way or the other.
In the end, Northman chides Benson for the ways in which they arrived at the final decision. She seethes at Benson, “and all from the comfort of your chair.” This moment feels as if it should be addressed to the audience instead of to Benson, because our own one-sided meditation on war, ethics, and drone strikes occurs from the comfort of our theater seat, mediated as it were, by a piece of particularly sneaky propaganda.