There is probably no premise in existence more charged with contradictory politics and moral ambiguity than that of a war film. Many directors and screenwriters know that embracing this complexity may hamper the accessibility of the film and choose to evade it through different methods. Some, like Francis Ford Coppola’s “Apocalypse Now,” focus on the individual soldier and the slow, steady bloom of his seething madness amidst the amoral chaos of the battlefield. A disturbing number, like Clint Eastwood’s “American Sniper,” sidesteps the uncomfortable political entanglements by selecting a personally resonant hue (in Eastwood’s case, warmongering scarlet) and proceeding to bathe the work with that one color. It replaces the nihilistic dirt with nationalistic grit, carving out scenes in which “heroes” open fire at an indistinct but distinctly inhuman mass of unreason and rancor that are sure to alienate a good portion of even domestic viewers. While one cannot vouch for movies like “American Sniper,” the continued success of such films despite the public backlash forces one to ask the following question: Is creating a war film that encompasses every political demographic inviable? “Eye in the Sky” defiantly shouts, “No!”
The story follows a joint military operation between the United States and Great Britain to track down and to capture a coterie of potential terrorists in Nairobi, Kenya. As the situation escalates, the leaders on both sides decide to launch a drone strike to neutralize their targets and to prevent potential attacks on innocent Kenyan civilians. Meanwhile, the audience also learns the story of a girl named Alia, a lower-class girl raised by loving and religiously moderate parents, who sells bread around town to help her family earn a living. Inadvertently, she sets up the day’s shop within the radius of the drone’s strike range, throwing the operation into a moral panic. Intensity only grows as the terrorists arm themselves in their compound. The rest of the movie follows the chain of troubled decision made at all stages of the operation as the clock slowly ticks on.
The most obvious issue with “Eye in the Sky” is its characters. The characters are well-acted, and when they are first introduced, the audience is given glimpse of their deeply ordinary private lives. Once they enter the war room, however, they trade in their personalities for the uniformly stern military mask, a defect that the movie embraces as a necessary price for its nonstop excitement. While many blockbusters stake their excitement on their explosions, “Eye in Sky” does so on the possibility that rapidly teeter-totters on probability. To introduce subdued and measured character moments into such a story would be to botch its pacing and the intent of the film.
What “Eye in the Sky” lacks in substantive personality-based character interactions, it compensates with a ceaseless conversation of locations and positions. The American foreign secretary is playing Ping-Pong in China. The British cabinet and the general are seated in a comfortable, brightly lit conference room. The colonel in charge of the operation barks commands in an underground spacious bunker brightened only by the numerous monitors. Finally, Alia and the Kenyan military officials find themselves in the wide-open Kenyan grounds, saturated by the Sun.
These distinct locations wordlessly communicate to the audience the hierarchy of power present in the conflict. The ones issuing the strike are inevitably secure from the consequences of their decision, bringing into question their right to execute such commands. But here, it is important to remember that “Eye in the Sky” is not content to appease the anti-war crowd; it wants to have them think. As the movie progresses, it becomes clear that the heads of the operation are distanced from the terrorist attacks that would result from a moment of hesitation. Revealing the real madness of the situation: the ones least involved are the ones most equipped to resolve the conflict. As the moral buck is traded up and down the chain of command, the audience receives the impression that here is a tiny world where people have been clearly wronged, but the wrongdoer is nowhere and yet everywhere to be found. In this respect, “Eye in the Sky” is a war film to be appreciated, as a clear pointer to the thickening shadows, where 21st-century war films are incumbent to tread.