When, last year, three-year-old Aylan Kurdi’s body was washed up on to the coast of Turkey, it provided a human face to the tragedy of refugees dying at sea.
The First World seems to have no trouble hearing or reading “170 refugees drown near Italian coast” even if many of the victims are children, but struggles mightily with the individual tragedy of a lone, young Syrian body exposed in all its sadness on a popular European beach.
Such is the way many of us think: hundreds dying in horrific circumstances is sad but too distant from our eyes to fully register normal human emotions. Yet see that one person, especially a vulnerable child, in the same circumstances and it is too unbearable to countenance.
In Eye in the Sky, this message is brought home powerfully in an excellent, suspense-filled thriller exposing the culpability of military and political operatives.
One young girl’s life in Nairobi, Kenya is weighed against the probability that the actions which may cause her to die will rid the world of three known terrorists and two suicide bombers. The latter two are being prepared to inflict death on countless other innocents. Eighty is the number used but it could well be so many more.
All this information is evident, not from on-the-ground spies, people watching from rooftops through binoculars or an army ready to pounce on the evil, but from a robot aircraft high above the ground. Sure there is some very sophisticated close-range watching done by an agent Jama (Barkhad Abdi). He operates a hand-held device disguised as a flying insect into a house and the vision is being watched and acted upon continents away in London, Nevada, Hawaii, Washington and Singapore.
Helen Mirren and the late Alan Rickman (his last film), respectively play a colonel and a general, the first leading an ‘eye in the sky’ operation to capture terrorists, the second at Whitehall managing the government ministers from whom authority is needed to expedite the mission.
Meanwhile in a desert bunker outside Las Vegas, Aaron Paul plays a US Air Force lieutenant, ‘flying’ his aircraft by remote control and whose job, if so ordered, is to squeeze the trigger to launch a missile.
The mission turns from capture to strike when the two terrorists, one a British national, leave their safe house and enter a part of Nairobi too sensitive to breach for the on-standby Kenyan commandos.
In the house where the two terrorists meet two potential suicide bombers is a third terrorist even more highly prized for elimination by the joint UK-US-Kenyan troika.
In the UK, Mirren wants to strike but permission is difficult to get. A prevaricating government minister and the Attorney-General differ on the legal stance. Rickman needs an answer in a hurry and the politicians want higher authority assurances. Bureaucracy gets in the way of a clean kill.
Enter Alia (Aisha Takow), a young girl who lives near the house where the terrorists are holed up. She sells her mother’s baked bread at a table outside the wall of the targeted house. Her death is more than probable if missiles are fired from the aircraft.
Herein lies the truism of the opening paragraphs. Apart from the senior military, anyone who sees the plight of the young girl at close hand softens their must-act-now stance on the potential strike. Interestingly, those in authority but not in this room or watching the unveiling action, have no qualms about striking.
All the rules of engagement are in place; permission in similar circumstances has already been granted; the military wants to do its job and the politicians want to protect their government’s reputation from potential political fall-out. In the US, there is no political qualm: execute immediately, yet it is their soldier, Lt Watts (Paul), who waivers. In the UK it is the military commanders who are gung-ho but the politicians who want to cover their positions.
With dark humour thrown in, a political operative from Washington joins the conversation. This woman is in stark contrast to the female British minister also in the Whitehall room. The American is perfectly cordial, thanking the Brits for allowing her to join their meeting. It all sounds so “Have a nice day” then within a sentence she virtually says “Kill them!” It was amusing stuff.
However, despite some attempts at levity in the rest of the movie, Eye in the Sky is more about edge-of-the-seat exciting as we are privy to eyewitness vision of the unfolding drama. The Lifeboat Theory is at the forefront: lose one to save many but the ‘one’ is an innocent child.
We can all see Alia in her blissful innocence. What decision would you make?