Thursday, March 24, 2016

The terrors of long-distance warfare

Eye in The Sky brings ethnical issues into agonizing focus.

The day after I saw Eye saw Eye in The Sky, bombs went off at Brussels' main airport and in the city's subway. Although Eye in The Sky deals with fictional events in Nairobi and involves al-Shabaab terrorists who seem far removed from Europe, the movie raises issues that resound with disturbing urgency in a post-Paris, post-Brussels world.

It's also worth remembering that Nairobi has known its share of terror, including a devastating attack at the upscale Westgate Mall in 2013.

Eye in the Sky brims with questions: If it were possible to know about an impending terrorist attack or at least to suspect that one was more than likely, how much collateral damage would be tolerable to prevent it? And what if one of the people in the path of a devastating drone attack happened to be a nine-year-old girl with no connection to anyone's political agenda?

Most movies that directly tackle ethical issues melt into puddles of prosaically stated positions. But Eye in the Sky -- deftly directed by Gavin Hood (Tsotsi and Rendition) and sharply written by Guy Hibbert -- brings its issues to the fore without sacrificing much by way of dramatic credibility and tension.

The story takes place in several locations, notably Great Britain, the US and Kenya.

Early on, we meet Col. Katherine Powell (Helen Mirren), a British officer who operates out of London.

Once her mission shifts from capture to kill, Col. Powell becomes increasingly eager to get on with the job. She's a steely officer whose focus on the mission tends to obliterate all other concerns, so much so that she's willing to fudge here and there if it means taking out high-priority targets she's been pursuing for years.

Questions about the propriety of the attack are further complicated by the fact that one of the jihadists is an American citizen and two are British citizens. Under what circumstances can it be legally allowable for a country to kill its own citizens, even those participating in jihad?

Drone operations are conducted from Nevada, where a young officer (Aaron Paul) and a newly assigned co-pilot (Phoebe Fox) are charged with flying a drone over Nairobi. If there's an attack, Paul's Steve Watts will have to pull the trigger.

A conference room full of London officials must make the final decision about whether to fire a deadly Hellfire missile into a Nairobi neighborhood where the terrorists have gathered.

At this meeting, we meet a general played by the late Alan Rickman and a nervous group of civilian bureaucrats portrayed by Jeremy Northam, Richard McCabe and Monica Dolan.

Rickman's character upholds the military position. Among the others, no one wants to shoulder blame for a decision that could lead to a public relations disaster. Frequently, the characters insist on referring the matter "up," meaning they want someone of higher rank to take responsibility.

On the ground in Kenya, an operative (Barkhad Abdi) helps provide information. Abdi's character employs a battery operated camera embedded in a mechanical beetle to provide views from inside the house where the jihadists have gathered to prepare for a suicide bombing.

And that's yet another of the movie's concerns: The men and women who are conducting this mission see almost everything on screens. They're engaged in a brand of combat that operates at far remove from the scene of destruction.

But that doesn't mean that they aren't affected by what they're doing or that they're unaware of the many ironies that infiltrate their high-tech worlds.

I can't know Hood's every intention, but beneath all the bickering, politicking and worrying about who may get blamed for what, you'll find something else: The movie demonstrates that the people who make these terrible decisions don't take them lightly. They'll all have to live with the consequences of choices that seldom produce clear-cut results.

The movie's smart enough not to delude us: It reminds us that there are situations in which every option has an awful -- and perhaps even unbearable -- downside.

Taut and chastening, Eye in The Sky leaves you saddened and shaken.

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