Eye in the Sky and the Good Soul…

In light go An Jo’s thoughts on Eye in the Sky I tried to respond elsewhere but then decided to just make a post out of the comment..


I liked both your writeup and the one I’ve referenced here. However I do think the film is ambiguous in a more problematic sense as well or in ways that go beyond the ‘ethical’ stakes raised in the film. The very ‘staging’ of such ethical concerns in a film, the degree to which so many of the principal characters seem tortured by the decision they’re about to make, not just on ‘humanitarian’ grounds but also legal ones (citizenship.. British, US), finally the sense that ‘ordinary’ people in these parts of the world are just going about their daily lives and they too are threatened by ‘fanatics’ all the time (the father chides the girl for playing in front of others who are as he calls them “fanatics”) and who in a sense wouldn’t mind being ‘rescued’ from this hellish existence (not of course at the cost of their children but even those who order the Drone strikes seem to agree on this point, more or less, which makes the decision a somewhat ‘impossible’ one)… this entire framework serves what is precisely the ideological justification for the strikes.

I am here not taking a position on whether these are good or bad choices relative to other alternatives.. all I’m saying is that the film for all its ‘ethical stakes’ comforts us that those who make these decisions and those who carry them out at every level are nice human beings who are constantly haunted by what they’re doing and who are ‘concerned’ about the child in the Kenyan or Nigerian shantytown as much as they would be for their own citizens. Now this too is true in many instances. Many people in this line of work do end up as wrecks of some sorts and many people in power also do not take these decisions easily or lightly. I am not therefore disagreeing necessarily with the ‘literal’ truth of the film. However the ‘image’ presented here (pun intended) is very much in line with the ideological justifications of those who defend the policy. Once more I am not taking a position on the policy here but if you were defending that policy it would seem to me that you would find the film more than acceptable.

Notice what happened the other day. The WH released a list of civilians killed in all these airstrikes. The number was 64-116 (the range provided). There were others who disputed this and found it laughably low. But how ‘low’ is acceptable? This is the question raised even by those who argue with the numbers. I’m not saying here that the number is meaningless. Just that it opens up a very different sort of logic. In any case if you watch the film in the light of such a report I don’t believe there’s any ‘conflict’ between the two. The WH claim has always been that these decisions are always taken most conscientiously. The film completely supports that claim. I don’t disbelieve this but that is already framing the question in a certain self-serving way.

But there is also the question of the audience’s ethics here. Sherman said ‘war is cruelty and you cannot refine it’. True. The film begins with the Aeschylus quote about truth being the first casualty of war. Sure. But those who argue against the ‘cruelty’ of drone strikes, aren’t they too in a way ‘satisfied’ by the film? But even if they don’t like this ‘cruelty’ what other kind would they prefer? I could extend this a bit more but the film at any rate seems to justify a policy and also reassure the viewers that the existential angst of the ‘actors’ keeps these decisions honest and makes these events rare. Don’t think that the WH has argued anything different here. All of this is not to take away from a film that is narratively excellent or well-shot. But in a work so much about these stakes one cannot ignore the ‘debate’.


11 Responses to “Eye in the Sky and the Good Soul…”

  1. Thanks for posting my thoughts Satyam. But you again conspired against Salman by publishing this since it resulted in pushing Sultan’s box-office thread down the order..


  2. omrocky786 Says:

    AnJo , when I read your review I had checked Netflix to see if it’s being streamed. It was and is not.
    I guess now after Satyam’s review I will have to rent the DVD.


  3. An Jo Says:

    July 4, 2016 at 12:20 PM

    EYE IN THE SKY, which Satyam is currently watching, is a highly unmissable movie. Very, very strongly recommended.

    Here are my thoughts on the movie..

    Eye In the Sky is such a crafty and intelligent movie that it manages to convey philosophical musings on war and state-craft in a thriller- format with hardly any reel devoted to philosophical discussions on the same! This is a movie then that should not be missed at any cost. The movie unfolds guised as an edge-of-the-seat thriller with so many emotions encapsulating age-old discussions on wars, their futility or more-so, their necessity in the geo-political world as we know now where legal and moral discussions take heated turns across seas, oceans, deserts, countries and continents.

    A covert drone operation is the order of the day near Nairobi, Kenya where 3 Islamist extremists who are on the Most Wanted Lists of Britain, the US, and Kenya are presently stationed. The eyes-in-the-sky (and of course also the actual drone-operators) are ensconced in Creech air-base in Las Vegas, Nevada; the Colonel commanding them is somewhere in Sussex, her over-seers including her military superior (a subdued and superbly detached Alan Rickman – his last outing) and a minister and attorney in London (British government over-seers); the English foreign-secretary is in Singapore peddling arms and ‘protective’ gears for soldiers, the American foreign-secretary is in China playing ping-pong with a group of God-knows-why-over-awed Chinese men: And at the center of this tragi-comic circus is an East-African girl-child selling bread unbeknownst that her life is hanging by an invisible thread running across all these inter-continental touch-points. The narrative-arc then plays out on the decision of Go/No-Go with regard to the drone-attack on the extremists’-haven unfortunately nestled right next to the girl’s home (her father, a bi-cycle repairer and her mother, a home-maker complete her family) And along this arc, the film masterfully takes the audience along in its thrilling moments and discerningly laid-out philosophical toppings on the actors, their actions, and the consequences of ‘decision-making.’

    Among many such brilliant scenes is the one where the Colonel (Mirren) is faced with legalities and ‘moralities.’ (Quite symbolic; she has a legal representative to protect her and the child of disastrous consequences but there isn’t any ‘moral’ advisor; morality, ladies and gentlemen, is your own personal baggage.) Her verbal back-and-forth with the legal-advisor is top-notch. Also fantastic are the scenes conveying the tension housed in what the Americans are proud to call the ‘situation’ room; this time, however, the room is in England & the situation is in East Africa. Any change in the situation on ground in Nairobi mandates discussions and ‘approvals’ from higher-ups as minutes and seconds could mark the difference between two suicide-bombers blowing themselves and the world according to them and around them and its prevention with, of course, a necessitated collateral damage. Symbolism is powerful here: The American foreign-secretary gets a call when he is on a tour in China asking for his approval since one of the extremists is an American citizen but he is busy playing ping-pong and is flustered at being disturbed with ‘such’ a call! That ‘ping-pong’ ball being poorly smashed around is the life of a kid in a ‘third-world’ country for God’s sake! That also reflects the inability of those-in-power in taking decisions and getting along by passing the buck. The British foreign-secretary, after getting food-poisoned, is busy taking a ‘dump’ in a whatever-star hotel when scenes are inter-cut with drone-operators readying their weapons to target, in essence, taking a drone-dump onto one of the poor neighbor-hoods in a poor country! The father of the girl plays a dual role; an open-minded man who wants his daughter to study and be a million-miles away from Sharia-enforced lands and also of a bread-winner who but has to repair bi-cycles belonging to Sharia-lovers or Sharia-haters. (He hides her school-books when a customer comes along lest word breaks out that he is encouraging his daughter getting educated and mockingly admonishes her when she is lost in child-hood and plays hula hoop in front of that same Sharia-loving customer.) What happens to these folks when, an ‘objective’ drone plunders their lives? Will the same person STILL call Al-Shabab and its members fanatics? What has that ‘surgical’ strike achieved if this man were to turn to the other side or be radicalized? When numerical counts of 8 versus 80 are taken with regard to casualties and ‘greater’ damage and decisions are made, what are the consequences of those decisions?

    All actors are in top form. Helen Mirren plays an unflinching military commander Katherine Powell to the extent that the audience shouldn’t be judged if they mutter ‘cold-hearted bitch’ – watch her talking to the ‘damage’ estimator and influencing him to somehow bring down the percentage of collateral damage to below 50% to get a legal clearing for the strike — under their breaths. (There is a very subtle, bubbling-under-the-surface hint of race-awareness in scenes where she is negotiating with the damage-estimator about cutting down the percentage of collateral damage. He is black, and possibly from Africa. Either way, Mirren talks to him quite differently even when she is practically ordering him to fudge numbers. There is something weighing on her mind when she is negotiating with him; both with regard to the unhealthy but arguably mandated necessity of cutting down the percentage, but maybe more so since she is talking with a black man about fudging numbers so she could get ‘legal’ clearance to bomb an African city’s neighborhood! Alan Rickman as Lt General Benson is superb in conveying a sense of urgency, detachment, and an embodiment of years of military-hardened exterior. Barkhad Abdi who stunned audiences as the Somalian pirate in Captain Phillips convincingly plays the mindful ground-operative. The actors playing members of the UK government are equally effective. Aaron Paul and Phoebe Fox as novices being forced to look at targets and innocent civilians BEFORE and AFTER drone-strikes for hours-on-end convey their frustrations and tumult of emotions finely. And the girl at the center of it all, Aisha Takow’s Alia Mo’Allim, effectively conveys the symbolism of life being caught between the devil and not-so-deep sea.

    Are we know destined to live with the fact that murder or death – depending on which side you are on – by numbers is the new modern-warfare reality? Who wins? And who wins fast and first? Do the breads sell fast or do the bombs blow earlier or the drone hell-fire missile strikes sooner? Who is the decision-maker? What has greater weight: The mathematical, surgical precision of a drone or the moral ambiguity of the human?


    Angela: What you have done sitting in your chair is just disgraceful.

    Benson: What you have seen just now sitting on your chair when dipping biscuits in your tea is what I have experienced as a General being on the ground and seeing the aftermath of 5 terrorist bombings. So NEVER tell a soldier that he cannot and doesn’t understand the cost of war.

    Benson to the minister: You tell us to go to war. We go and do our business. YOU deal with the aftermath.


    • Saw the movie last night……. a very timely and must say brilliantly mounted movie.
      The tea- biscuit line was a truly seeti-taali moment for me.
      I must say that all along I was like – pull the damn trigger already…but the girl’s condition was really gut wrenching and I was not sure whether it was a good call.


      • Glad you liked it Rocky. The take-away for me was the way they conveyed all philosophical musings in a thriller format!


        • The one jarring thing that I noticed was that when the Somali agent runs -post failed attempt at buying the bread…kind of normalcy returns at that place as if nothing happened…I did not find that natural.


  4. ‘Eye In The Sky’ is such a great film. One of the most nail-biting thrillers I’ve seen in the past 20 years or so. Never since Wolfgang Peterson’s ‘In The Line of Fire’ has a thriller had me so relentlessly at the edge of my seat.


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