Drone Pilots As Working Stiffs: Eye in the Sky

The image of Alan Rickman doll-shopping in uniform in Gavin Hood's Eye of the Sky (rated R, now playing) is a droll sight. The wonderfully dour actor, who died at age 69 in January, looks flummoxed by minor variations among dolls, and ultimately chooses one that will not please its intended recipient.

The gravity of missing a target by mere inches quickly rises to the surface, as Rickman's Lt. Gen Benson is running an errand on his way to a high-level meeting involving Britain's drone war program and the murky legal framework by which Her Majesty's Government may execute two of its own subjects (plus an American citizen), al-Shabab militants whom it's been tracking in Kenya and Somalia for the last six years.

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This is not a Bond film where the technology is meant to dazzle, but nor is Eye in the Sky meant to instill paranoia about surveillance, either. You will feel a twinge of it, because cameras in the shape of a hovering beetle or a bird-on-a-wire are feasible and frightening, but this film dives into the nitty-gritty of targeted assassinations as just one more facet of the banality of warcraft. (Indeed, one character wishes Phoebe Fox and Aaron Paul's Nevada-based drone pilot characters a “good shift” as they hunker in their desert warren.) Drone war has been compared to video games, but here, it's more of a daily grind, its fatigued operators glorified working stiffs.

The story revolves around Col. Katherine Powell (Helen Mirren), an icy and determined military intelligence officer who convinces her subordinates that her interpretation of the law is a sound one even as she's falling victim to mission creep in real time as she tracks down a radicalized British woman.

“We need to expand the rules of engagement to protect civilian populations,” Powell says, effectively transforming a capture to a kill. She's like House of Cards' Claire Underwood, in fatigues, and not particularly interested in the survival of her man in Nairobi (the absorbing Barkhad Abdi).

What follows is almost a comedy of errors, involving a hesitant U.K. attorney general, a Cabinet minister who's gotten food poisoning in Singapore, and an American Secretary of State who's irritated that his game of ping-pong in Beijing has been interrupted by the Brits asking if it's OK for them to execute a U.S. citizen. Eye in the Sky benefits from a clarity of narrative, but after enough ping-ponging among functionaries, even the most dovish among us wishes they'd just come to a decision, already. The fog of war has become a bureaucratic, multi-car pile-up.

Still, the film is replete with images that all but demand symbolism. The cockpit-lessness of a drone aircraft, for instance, makes a good metaphor for how blindly these tech-enabled warriors grope about on the ground. And while street scenes in Nairobi, where a woman is chased from a market for showing bare wrists in public, may convince some viewers who the “real” enemy is, Eye in the Sky never loses sight of the possibility of the good guys becoming worse.

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