For those of us who have never been in the military, war films paint a very specific picture of what military operations are like. Generals barking orders as heavily armed soldiers rush in. Gunshots, explosions, and charges into battle are the norm. Not the case with “Eye in the Sky,” where most of our soldiers sit behind desks and stare at video feeds.
Drone warfare is a hotly debated topic. However, it’s also the sort of topic that is very easy to take sides on without really having any knowledge of said topic. That is not to say that one should be gathering all their information from this film, but the film does the job of allowing the average civilian a more intimate viewing of such warfare, of the people behind drone strikes and of the people who are being affected.
The operation that plays out is simultaneously familiar and foreign. There’s an inevitability to the events taking place, and whether that is from my cursory understanding of how war works or from the tension created in the film I can’t say, but it is likely a combination of both. It is because of viewers vague knowledge of war that the film is so effective. Every line doesn’t have to be drawn; viewers can interpret so much.
Especially in characterization, there is little need to give detailed backstories. Characters' reactions are completely human and fit within what a viewer would expect of someone in each character’s respective positions. But the film isn’t really about the characters -- at least, not the characters as individuals.
As the operation proceeds, there’s an awareness that it has taken place a thousand times before and will take place a thousand more times, and thus every character represents a thousand other people in that same position. And yet, it’s easy to forget this and get caught up in the present story, to forget the big picture, because this story, like all war stories, is inherently human.
Just as the characters can’t help but care about the young girl caught in the crossfire even though they know nothing about her, so do we, the viewers. We just inherently care about the characters without knowing much about them. While a film like “Spotlight” struggled to attain real character investment with its sketchily drawn characters, “Eye in the Sky” succeeds, perhaps really only because there is so much more focus on the civilians, the unknowing victims, going about their daily business with no knowledge that they are entangled in a military operation.
As much as the emotional state of the officers is important, both to the outcome of the mission and to the viewer on a human level, it is the young girl Alia (Aisha Takow) and Jama Farah (Barkhad Abdi), essentially the only two non-terrorist characters in danger of losing their lives, that the viewer is truly concerned for. It’s an odd way to see warfare with people behind desks, but it is an actuality. The idea that we are truly concerned with one life, the collateral damage, instead of a whole army is a depiction of the shifting way that war is conducted, but it also benefits the discussion of ethics, which is really the heart of the film.Most of the film is deliberation, not action. Bureaucracy is as much part of the film as any amount of action, for the higher ups (Alan Rickman’s general, Helen Mirren’s colonel, and assorted other heads of state) throw the decision back and forth to each other, having to get clearance on both legal and political levels to carry out the drone strike. It’s infuriating to watch as time ticks away, knowing that at any moment the situation could change and compromise the mission, but it’s also a reminder that drone strikes aren’t just carried out willy-nilly. There is deliberation, and there are people who argue both sides of the ethical argument. And the most important reminder may be that there are real people who have to make this decision, who have to weigh lives against each other. Perhaps drone strikes are not the impersonal robotic attacks we’ve come to see them as.