It’s one of the most oldest moral dilemmas in the book: if you could save dozens of lives by taking that of an innocent, would you do it? Could you sleep at night, knowing that you were responsible for depriving someone of a future? This conundrum gets a cutting-edge makeover in Eye in the Sky, a gripping political thriller about a joint British/American task force of agents, lawyers, politicians and drone pilots tasked with remotely eliminating a group of Al-Shabaab would-be suicide bombers in a Nairobi suburb.
Just as they agree to pull the trigger, a young girl (Aisha Takow) selling bread sets up near the terrorists’ compound, throwing the plans into chaos and exposing the fault lines between their competing legal, political and military rationales for action. Like Tobias Lindholm’s excellent A War, the philosophical crux of the story – underlined by a quote from Aeschylus that “in war, truth is the first casualty” – is the willingness of an individual to ignore and even distort the truth in order to achieve a military objective. But unlike the ground troops in Lindholm’s film, here the decision-makers are far removed from the heat of battle, making their deliberations on whether to kill or not more disturbing and less condonable.
One of Eye in the Sky’s great strengths is its willingness to embrace the fundamental ambiguity of the situation at hand, leaving it to the viewer to decide on the rights and wrongs of what takes place in front of them. Hood does stumble in a few places, displaying his Hollywood sensibilities in some amusing but implausible espionage scenes featuring perfectly lifelike, camera-equipped miniature robot critters, and in a misplaced moment of toilet humour that threatens to derail the realism. Some of the attempts to distinguish Alia and her family from the oppressively religious society in which they live – such as a scene where her father encourages her to covertly study mathematics – feel slightly heavy-handed, and seem to imply that their lives are more valuable because of their “progressive” values.
Fortunately, these flaws scarcely detract from the film’s overall experience, thanks to Hood’s impressive ease in flitting between settings as diverse as London, Nevada, Hawaii, Singapore and Kenya, and in balancing contributions from a large cast that includes British heavyweights Alan Rickman and Helen Mirren. Writer Guy Hibbert manages to resist the temptation of providing unnecessary explanatory backstory for his protagonists’ behaviour, preferring wisely to restrict us to the claustrophobic bunkers and Whitehall meeting rooms from which they deliberate. Eye in the Sky is an impressive demonstration of cinema’s ability to tackle complex ethical and philosophical issues without forgetting to entertain.
Maximilian Von Thun | @M3Yoshioka