The ambiguity surrounding the toll of drone warfare is a product and symptom of collective fatigue. We're told it is an exercise in precision, yet we're also aware, at least abstractly, that these operations are causing collateral damage, further shoring up resentment against the United States in foreign lands. The numbers of civilian deaths caused by drones are unreliable and conflicting—which only makes them easier to ignore—but it's clear they're an inevitable byproduct of anti-terrorist warfare in the modern age. If these death counts are ever verified, the use of drones will become much harder to put out of mind, despite Americans' tendency to feel utterly disconnected from the violence inflicted on our behalf. Sure, we'll hop on Facebook to weigh in on the broad strokes (like whether or not a reality TV douchebag should be the leader of the free world), but we're hardly consulted when it comes to covert operations.
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Eye in the Sky, directed by South Africa's Gavin Hood, offers an insider point of view on drone warfare—theoretically, at least. At the nail-biting center of Eye in the Sky is a British operation, led from a war room in Sussex by the steely Colonel Katherine Powell (Helen Mirren), to capture a radicalized English national hiding in Kenya. The operation is truly international: In addition to working in tandem with officials in London (including the wonderfully, archly dry Alan Rickman as Powell's commanding officer), Powell is in constant contact with US troops in Las Vegas. There, Steve (Aaron Paul) is the actual operator of the drone—a newish recruit who admits he only signed up for service in order to pay down student debt.
As the situation on the ground in Kenya escalates—the target moves to a safe house embedded in a terrorist-controlled district, where a camera the size of a flying insect reveals there's a suicide bomb being prepared—the mission's objective goes from "capture" to "kill." But the thrust of the Eye in the Sky's tension comes when Steve spots Alia (Aisha Takow), a young girl who sets up a table to sell bread directly in front of the targeted house. More contacts are made around the globe, as the officials argue over whether to proceed with the girl in harm's way. Powell argues that if they don't act and the terrorists succeed with their plot, many more will die, but nobody wants to be the politician who signs off. More calls are made, among which is perhaps the most telling: The US secretary of state pauses during a ping-pong tournament in Beijing to cheerfully and without hesitation give his blessing to fire.
Though darkly humorous, it's this portrayal of Americans as unflinching that feels the most genuine. Hood's suggestion that world leaders would allow a young girl's safety to delay an operation, putting others at risk—including their own undercover agents on the ground in Kenya—feels like wishful thinking. It's better, then, to appreciate the film as a moral exercise for the viewer rather than a realistic depiction of military deliberation. What would you do if faced with the decision to terminate one innocent life in order to save 100?
If Eye in the Sky accomplishes one thing, it's to function as a gripping thriller despite dealing almost exclusively with people staring at screens while talking on the telephone. But if the film accomplishes two things, it also generates awareness of what modern warfare technology looks like (awesome, brimming with unintended consequences), and encourages careful consideration of the ethical liability that comes with this power. What Eye in the Sky doesn't do, however, is provide a faithful portrayal of how those who are in power have weighed that responsibility.