What is the value of a single human life?
Is it worth a point in the propaganda war, that never-ending battle for “hearts and minds” that generation after generation of politicians seem obliged to wage in the name of foreign policy?
Is it valueless in a world where scores of lives are snuffed out in seconds for some cause or another, by those who seem to see no worth in another soul?
Is it acceptable collateral damage weighed against dozens of other lives that could be lost?
Or does that single life mean the entire world to some – say, the parents struggling to give a young girl an education and a happy childhood in a harsh environment where girls must remain ignorant and docile?
These are the questions Eye In The Sky asks of its principal players, and we in the audience.
Without being judgmental of one side or another, this suspenseful drama from director Gavin Hood (Ender’s Game, and that other film with Deadpool in it) just puts us in the middle of a “situation” – leaving us to weigh the moral and ethical dilemmas that arise together with those characters.
In a Kenyan neighbourhood, high-value targets from the jihadist group Al-Shabaab, including a radicalised British citizen, are gathering with their newest recruits. Kenyan undercover agent Jama Farah (Barkhad Abdi) and his team observe them using some nifty, high-tech devices borrowed from the day after tomorrow.
In a control room in England, British Colonel Katherine Powell (Helen Mirren) coordinates a surveillance operation using a US Predator drone piloted, on the other side of the Atlantic, by earnest airman Steve Watts (Adrian Paul).
Once the abovementioned Brit terrorist gets positively identified, the Kenyan army will move in to capture her.
And somewhere else in England, Lt-General Frank Benson (Alan Rickman) and a group of “relevant” politicians and political appointees from the British Cabinet oversee the proceedings, ready to give the capture order.
That’s when things go sideways. The jihadis change locations. the surveillance operation swings closer to becoming a lethal drone strike against the targets, and … a little girl named Alia (Aisha Takow) sets up her stall dangerously close by to sell her mother’s freshly baked bread.
This is where all those questions from earlier come into play, when some people start putting their lives (in Jama’s case) and careers on the line, and others show great reluctance to risk their jobs, falling back on procedure, protocol and channels to safeguard their posteriors.
It’s also the point at which Hood and scriptwriter Guy Hibbert orchestrate a white-knuckle sequence of events that will leave you shaking your head in disbelief, that bureaucracy could be so darned suspenseful.
The cast is uniformly brilliant in its control: the military personnel show just enough emotion through subtle expressions and suppressed reactions so as to remain faithful to their characters’ professionalism; and the politicians lose it ever so slightly as they face pressures they never bargained for when they left the house that morning. And leave it to the late, great Alan Rickman to deliver the film’s pithiest line at the end – you can sense the catharsis in every word, after hours (story time, not running time) of grappling with politicians.
As for those on the ground, so much of the film’s impact – and it is devastating – stems from the way we see them carry on with life, innocent and unaware of how their lives are being shaped by unseen forces, both hidden among them and from high above.
So, what is the value of a single human life? The film won’t answer that question for you; it just presents an image from earlier on as a poignant coda, and leaves you to ponder your own reply.
Eye In The Sky
Director: Gavin Hood
Cast: Helen Mirren, Barkhad Abdi, Alan Rickman, Aaron Paul, Jeremy Northam, Iain Glen