As if we needed to be reminded of what a loss Alan Rickman’s death represents to cinema, we have his final speech in Gavin Hood’s incisive consideration of collateral damage and the ethics of warfare, EYE IN THE SKY. As the General watching the drone mission on a house in Somalia from elegantly appointed offices in England, he is tasked with bringing the military perspective to the operation that is being run by a committee that includes him, the Attorney General, and other civilian functionaries. Forced into an assertive diplomacy in order to achieve the operation’s objectives, he walks that fine line between patience, irritation, and disdain with such grace, such visceral force, that it is no wonder that one of those seemingly cool and collected functionaries (Jeremy Northam) reveals dark stains under his arms when he removes the jacket of his superbly tailored suit. The thrust and parries of military efficiency, legal considerations, and propaganda blowbacks has put a strain on all of them as they watch events play out in Africa and come to realize with full force the true cost of using violence as a solution.
The operation is to capture a high-value target that Col. Powell (Helen Mirren at her formidable best) has been tracking for six years. Intelligence reports have led them to a house in Somalia, where the target, a British national, is meeting other members of a terrorist cell that includes an American. The sophisticated surveillance equipment monitored by people on three continents and Hawaii reveal that they are planning an imminent attack on the civilian population using suicide bombers. The mission changes from capture to kill, but the unexpected presence of a little girl (Aisha Takow) selling bread within the strike zone forces them all to consider more than the military implications. The Attorney General (Richard McCabe)ponders the legalities, the member of Parliament can’t see past the life that she knows will probably end with a missile strike, the government appointee, the one with the pit stains, wants permission from his superiors up to and including the British Prime Minister and the President of the United States, and the drone pilot (Aaron Paul) in Las Vegas, eyes fixed on the child, demands a re-assessment of the kill zone before he will pull the trigger on the Hellfire missile. Meanwhile, the window of opportunity to stop the terrorist attack is closing as bumping responsibility up the civilian chain of command contends with double talk designed for maximum deniability, bad prawns, and a ping-pong match in China.
Hood and screenwriter Guy Hibbert have perfectly crystalized the global perspective of the war on terror, pulling in participants from all over the globe into a heart-pounding thriller played out in real time over satellite links and telephones with events unfolding on view screens that allow them omniscience, but also a peculiar impotence beyond blowing a target to smithereens. The action builds slowly, as the stakes are raised bit by bit, targets identified, rules of engagement shift with a lurch with each decision, or non-decision, demanding action that has no perfect resolution. Welcome to the real world. When Powell stands over the sergeant (Babou Ceesay) whose job it is to calculate the range of the damage that the missile will cause, their conversation is much more than what is said as she expertly cajoles and comforts the man under her command to do something he knows is incorrect, but not necessarily wrong. It is mesmerizing. But it is the image of Aaron Paul, tears welling in his eyes, finger not quite on the missile’s trigger, that wrenchingly distills the full import of what is being done. He and the others involved may not be legally guilty of anything, but moral culpability is another thing altogether, and the film never for a moment lets us forget that even as it provides cogent, even compelling arguments, for both sides of the question of whether or not to fire that missile, save the future victims of the terrorist attack while perhaps sacrificing one child that they can clearly see leading a happy, cherished life.
Brilliantly conceived, EYE IN THE SKY is a film that is both intelligent and provocative, never stooping to glib answers or allowing for the cheapness of any human life as it presents a powerful dialectic on ethics and violence. Which brings us back to that final speech by Alan Rickman. When confronted about what has happened by a civilian who is overwhelmed by what she has just seen, his response, astringent and with barely concealed vitriol, that telling a military man that he does not know the cost of war, is a virtual punch in the gut. Not just to that civilian, but to us in the audience, as well.