“A film, a piece of theatre, a piece of music, or a book can make a difference. It can change the world.”
I’ve always been a fan of the spy thriller genre. Thanks to the edge-of-your-seat bestsellers of Tom Clancy, Jack Higgins, Robert Ludlum, John LeCarre and Frederick Forsyth during my growing up years. It is noteworthy that the best works of these authors are those which are able to deftly combine never-before-read action sequences with dilemmas that disturb and compel the reader to think. Eye in the Sky (2015) could have been written by any of the preceding authors. It is a tribute then to both its scriptwriter Guy Hibbert and director Gavin Hood along with their fine cast of actors that the movie created such a positive impression on this viewer and, more importantly, based on the critical reviews as well as box office ticket sales, on quite a number of audiences worldwide.
The movie which stars two of the most critically-acclaimed character actors of our time (i.e., Helen Mirren and the late great Alan Rickman) is about the question: does the end justify the means? Stating the thing more broadly, if you have the means to strike at an enemy whose main strategy is to sacrifice the innocent, would you do so even if it means sacrificing the innocent? If you put the context of these questions against the backdrop of the twin evils of our time, the stakes exponentially go higher. At the global level is the ongoing war on terror being waged by the West and its allies against Islamic fundamentalism. At the local level is the ongoing war on drugs being led by the newly-elected president and his police chief. There is no need to belabor that terrorism and drugs are evil and that all decent human beings everywhere should waste no time putting an end to both in the soonest possible time. The historical evidence against both are simply overwhelming. And there, as my favorite columnist Conrad de Quiros used to say, lies the rub. Where would we stop to end the scourge of terrorism and the horrors of drug dependency? Is the life of an innocent girl whose only crime is that of being a dutiful daughter worth sacrificing? Can morality be reduced to a numbers game? One life sacrificed for a thousand to be spared from slaughter? Alas, when real lives are in the balance, the answers are not that easy to come by. And this is what this superb piece of film making succeeds in articulating even as it reels you in with a number of its fascinating cinematic elements.
There is the amazing interdependence of geographically-separate units whose singular objective is initially to locate and capture some of the most wanted terrorists operating in Nairobi, Kenya. The so-called eye in the sky is actually the surveillance provided by the USAF team piloting the MQ-9 Reaper drone while based in Creech Air Force Base in Nevada. The more up-close and personal intel which completes the surveillance input is care of the short-range ornithopter (i.e., unmanned surveillance miniature aircraft resembling a bird) and insectothopter (i.e., unmanned surveillance miniature aircraft resembling a bug) cameras controlled by two Kenyan undercover agents led by Jama Farah (i.e., Barkhad Abdi.) US military personnel stationed in Pearl Harbor provide facial recognition info. Orchestrating the interface of all these critical elements is Colonel Katherine Powell (i.e., Helen Mirren) of the British Armed Forces who is conducting the mission in Northwood, UK. Supervising Powell is Lieutenant General Frank Benson (i.e., Alan Rickman) along with the British Attorney General (i.e., Richard McCabe) and other civilian higher-ups all of whom are located in London. Together, these five geographically separate teams comprising the “kill chain” seek to complete Col. Powell’s mission even as they argue amongst themselves about the letter and the spirit of jus in bello (i.e., the right conduct in war) through an elaborate mechanism of checks and balances in place. According to the International Committee of Red Cross, jus in bello stipulates that “the acts of war should be directed towards enemy combatants and not towards non-combatants caught in circumstances they did not create.” It is precisely the implications of jus in bello relative to the mission led by Col. Powell that makes the movie intriguing and ultimately, nerve-racking. Consider, for example, the contrast between how the British Foreign Secretary (i.e., Iain Glen) could not summon the courage to decide on whether or not to authorize a kill order and how the USAF pilot 2nd Lt. Steve Watts (i.e., Aaron Paul) could firmly stand his ground in requesting for a revised CDE (i.e., collateral damage estimate) before rifling a Hellfire missile to assassinate the terrorists they have successfully located. For that matter, consider how the U.S. Secretary of State could easily make a call regarding a kill mission order in contrast to how Sgt Mushtaq Saddiq (i.e., Babou Ceesay) found himself being co-opted by his commanding officer to ensure the execution of Powell’s mission is perceived as aboveboard based on his revised CDE. These two well thought-out behavioral juxtapositions starkly remind me of what the writer John Maxwell once noted. Leadership is truly not a position. In truth, anyone at any level of an organization can lead because leadership is influence. Nothing more, nothing less.
Adding even greater tension and excitement to the dilemma faced by the five geographically separate teams is the prominence of cutting edge military technology throughout the movie. The MQ-9 Reaper drone does exist as a matter of fact. This $ 16.9 million weapon of war can indeed carry up to 4 Hellfire missiles. It can really see that far and that wide in real time. More to the point, it can cover a 100 km area using 368 cameras capable of capturing 5 million pixels each. The AGM-114 Hellfire missile does exist and has, in fact, been used in the targeted killings of high-profile terrorist personalities. Weighing 100 pounds, each Hellfire missile is currently priced at $ 110,000. The ornitopher and the insectothopter both exist as technologies albeit not at the same fascinating level that they are portrayed in the film. But as Bill Gates once reminded us in his book The Road Ahead, we live in a time when anything you can imagine can eventually be converted to reality one way or the other. It’s just a matter of time. Facial recognition technology, of course, is something that has been with us for a time now that even civilian institutions use it along with voice biometrics to protect client privacy.
But the one thing that really gets to the viewer is how the perspective of the kill chain meshes and eventually crashes with the perspective of the innocent civilian who is perennially caught in the crossfire represented here by a sweet Kenyan girl named Alia (i.e., Aisha Takow.) Alia’s only crime is that she loves her parents so much that she dutifully helps them make both ends meet by selling bread in between her school work and her fascination for the hoolahoop. In her simplicity and naivete, she reminds me of the Syrian boy refugee whose dead body was washed ashore. There but for the grace of God go our own children. In Alia’s plight and the indescribable pain that her passing caused her parents, we truly get to appreciate what the character of Alan Rickman admonished the civilian leader (i.e., Monica Dolan) who expressed disgust over how the mission eventually ended: “never tell a soldier that he does not know the cost of war.” In point of fact, one need not be a soldier to know the cost of war. And this is where the global war on terror appears to completely part ways with the Philippine war on drugs. While no leading government official of any of the countries comprising NATO or its allies in the Asia Pacific would dare to explicitly violate jus in bello to advance the war on terror, the current head of state of this country has practically given the license to kill to the military and the police to put an end to the drug menace at any cost. Worse, those who dare to oppose his draconian stance are publicly demonized. Would that our president and his advisers could one day find the time to catch this movie. Perhaps given his background in law, it would somehow remind him as Major Webb (i.e., John Heffernan) reminded Col. Powell that “the law isn’t here to get in your way. It’s here to protect you.” It is so in Kenya. It is so in Manila.