Eye in the Sky

How much collateral damage is too much?

On March 7 of this year, the U.S. military used drones (and other aircraft) to kill over 150 people in Somalia, a country with which it is not at war. The immediate claim of the U.S. government was that all the people killed were either terrorists or militants, but no proof of this claim has been offered. The mainstream media nevertheless accept such claims without question, and one has to go to investigative journalists like Glenn Greenwald (of the Intercept) to find any critical analysis of such attacks.

What about the likely death of the innocent young girl selling bread just outside the house?

Drone strikes have increased exponentially in the past decade, and the attack in Somalia is proof of the timeliness of the British film Eye in the Sky, which concerns a potential drone strike on friendly soil, in this case on a house in the city of Nairobi, Kenya. Directed by Gavin Hood and written by Guy Hibbert, Eye in the Sky has very little action but lots of tension as it explores the ethical question of whether the elimination of a small group of terrorists is worth the potential collateral damage (i.e., the death of innocent civilians).

Helen Mirren plays Colonel Katherine Powell, an ice-cold British military intelligence officer overseeing the planned capture of three most wanted terrorists, one of whom is a British woman desperately wanted for “interrogation” whom Powell has been chasing for years. The terrorists are in a house in Nairobi but Powell is in an underground command center in rural England, from where she watches the house in question via her eye in the sky, an American drone “flown” by U.S. Air Force pilot Steve Watts (Aaron Paul), who is sitting in a trailer on an air force base near Las Vegas. Meanwhile, military experts in Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, are also watching, and are using facial recognition software to positively identify the terrorists.

Unfortunately, before the female terrorist can be positively identified, she and her companions leave the house, thus thwarting capture. While watched by the eye in the sky, the terrorists drive to a house in another part of the city, a part controlled by terrorists and unreachable by police on the ground, thus ending discussion of capture. In the new location, Powell and company are able to confirm the identity of the terrorists, while also discovering that the terrorists are planning to send out two suicide bombers. This leads them to contemplate more drastic action, namely a drone strike that will kill everyone in the house. But what about the fact that they are bombing a friendly country? And, even worse, what about the likely death of the innocent young girl selling bread just outside the house?

Powell consults a military lawyer, who advises referring up the chain of command. In his final screen performance, Alan Rickman plays the British general (Frank Benson) who sits in a boardroom in London and presides over a small group of British politicians and the attorney general as they try to make this difficult call. They end up referring up themselves, calling the foreign secretary (Iain Glen), who’s attending an arms fair in Singapore, and even the U.S. secretary of state, who is at a table tennis tournament in Beijing (and wonders what the problem is).

Most of Eye in the Sky takes place in real time, putting us in the middle of the action, or in this case, the tension that never lets up as the ramifications of this vital ethical decision are discussed. The acting is excellent, with Mirren and Rickman particularly strong, and Paul does very well in a minor role. The cinematography and score are very good.

On the whole, therefore, Eye in the Sky is a very good film that’s well worth watching. It asks vital questions without providing clear answers, while also exposing the way some military personnel and politicians can be more worried about the media fallout of the possible death of a young girl than they are about the girl herself.

Nevertheless, the film has a couple of significant flaws. One of these is the way it tries to create sympathy for the girl while at the same time trying to be clinically objective. This resulted, for me, in a critical lack of engagement—in a situation when I believe such empathic engagement is called for. The second flaw is bigger, though hardly one identified by critics: while the film explores collateral damage, it assumes, without question, that the killing of terrorists is a good and necessary thing (no ethical dilemma there).

For these reasons, I actually prefer Andrew Niccol’s 2015 film, Good Kill, starring Ethan Hawke, which is far more critical of drone warfare. As a follower of Jesus—who would not sit in a trailer and pull the trigger on a Hellfire missile—I, for one, view drone strikes as an unequivocal evil.

Final observation: both of these drone films suggest that American leaders are far less worried about collateral damage than their British counterparts, which may make Eye in the Sky a different viewing experience in the United States than in Canada and the United Kingdom.


Eye in the Sky is rated R for violent images and strong language.

All reviews express the opinions of the reviewer, not necessarily the views of Third Way.