In an episode of the Radiolab podcast produced in 2013 called “Worth”, a segment discussed the idea of military condolences. The American military has a habit of saying ‘sorry’ with money since the idea was first implemented by a general in the days of WWI, and it’s an ideology that weighs the worth of human life against monetary value. The reporters of the podcast stumbled across a magic number: $2,500USD.
But herein lies the dilemma we are faced today in modern warfare, where operations are conducted not by boots on the ground, but rather machines flying in the air, manned by operators thousands of kilometres away. Is the price of collateral damage – innocent civilians – worth taking down that evil terrorist?
A timely and tense British thriller directed by Gavin Hood, Eyes in the Sky is the sobering film which tackles such an audacious subject.
Early one morning, British Col. Powell, played by a Thatcher-channelling Helen Mirren, receives word that a long-suspected British-born terrorist, a woman married to a radical Somalian, has finally appeared.
A committee, headed by the somewhat bittersweet casting of Alan Rickman in his very last role as Lt. General Frank Benson, involves high-ranking British officials sitting in a London office in front of a screen watching the events unfold. Rickman’s acting is superb, and his presence commands the attention of both the audience and the other characters in the room.
The actual drone is flown by the Americans, featuring Aaron Paul from Breaking Bad as Capt. Steve Watts, the pilot sitting in a small dark booth in the middle of the Nevada desert.
With cool gadgets and a comical and brilliant performance from Barkhad Abdi (the pirate leader of Captain Philips) as their intel man on the ground, the suits in charge watch as the operation slowly unravels from the snatch-and-grab in the middle of the suburbs to a drone strike in a gang-controlled shanty town, as the terrorist, her husband, and two young man are revealed to be planning a suicide bombing.
Simple affair, right? Let the Hellfire bomb drop, and no more terrorists. But here’s the catch: there’s a little girl selling bread on the side of the road who will most definitely die in the process.
The whole “should we shouldn’t we” back and forth makes up the majority of the film, as the British high command attempts to pass the buck, fearing both PR crisis and attacks of conscience.
Playing to British humour and a glimpse of the director’s attitude to the Americans, there was a particularly comical scene involving an American official visiting China. Eager to get back to his game of table tennis, his immediate reaction to the other characters’ hesitation is “are you kidding me?” However, the enthusiasm for pulling the trigger is a stark contrast to Paul’s Watts, who refuses to carry out the order the first time.
This constant push-pull sets a particularly terse and thrilling adventure, although it’s hard to take the amount of red tape the characters push through seriously. There are genuine laugh-out-loud moments, which gives audiences brief moments of reprieve from the serious topic. And ultimately, at the very end of the film, whether the young girl selling bread dies or not is irrelevant.
Because irrespective of her to-be-determined demise, the sombre reality is drone strikes such as these have happened, are happening, and will continue to happen. That is the state of modern warfare.
Yet just as the characters in the London office slowly file out of the meeting room after the whole event, as Rickman stares into the eyes of another character who accuses all of them as being heartless, Rickman’s terse response seems like a message Gavin Hood wants to send to his audience.
“Never tell a soldier he doesn’t know the cost of war”.
- The final film of Alan Rickman and his wonderful acting
- Excellent support cast
- Lack of whining from Aaron Paul
- Almost implausible scenario
- Film carries a bit too long