Drone Warfare’s Ethical Dilemmas Are Focus of Film “Eye in the Sky”

For director Gavin Hood, the audience is the jury, listening to urgent arguments about drones killing people in far-off countries and cities.

Helen Mirren with Director Gavin Hood (left) and actress Helen Mirren on the set of EYE IN THE SKY, a Bleecker Street release. Credit : Keith Bernstein / Bleecker Street Photo: Keith Bernstein/Bleeker Street

EYE IN THE SKY is a drone war primer in the form of a thriller. I’m not spoiling anything by laying out the premise, which is quickly established at the start of the film: The British have identified known members of al Shabaab, among them British and American citizens, in the act of preparing a suicide attack from a house in a mostly Somali neighborhood in Nairobi. Taking out the house with a Hellfire missile should be simple enough, but it risks the lives of civilians, including a young girl in the house next door. Then there are the political ramifications: In a war room back in London, an official asks, “Has there ever been a British-led drone attack in a city in a friendly country that is not at war?”

What follows are two hours of legal, tactical, and political wrangling around the decision to pull the trigger. The film, which is currently in theaters, shifts rapidly between the Nairobi streets; a bunker commanded by a hawkish British colonel (Helen Mirren); a London situation room where politicians, military officers (among them the late Alan Rickman), and lawyers ask ever-higher authorities to approve the strike; and a U.S. drone base in Nevada, where a young pilot and sensor operator gear up for their first kill operation.

The film’s premise is in many ways too perfect and precise: a war without any fog at all, where facial recognition software functions so well as to identify a terrorist by a scrap of hair, and a tiny spy-beetle drone is literally inside the room as the terrorists don their explosive vests. It certainly doesn’t reflect what we know about the reality of the U.S. drone war in Yemen, Somalia, Afghanistan, and Pakistan (and now Libya, Iraq, and Syria) where intelligence is often imperfect or inadequate, where unknown “militants” are killed in “signature strikes,” and where hundreds of civilians have died.

And yet, as David Cole put it in a piece in the New York Review of Books, the film presents a classic dilemma — should you kill a small number to potentially save the lives of many others — and it does not pretend that drone technology can “solve the moral and ethical issues; it only casts them into sharper relief.”

I spoke with the film’s director, Gavin Hood, about the movie and the political impact he hopes it has. (The interview has been edited and condensed.)

This film shows a fraught counterterrorism operation from every possible angle, almost like a drone war explainer. It’s a similar approach to your film Rendition (a 2007 movie about the CIA’s kidnapping and torture of terror suspects). What has drawn you to these projects?

Hood: Many people out there know about drones in an abstract sense, they’ve heard of them, they’ve got a vague idea of what they do, but given the fact that modern warfare is moving more and more in this direction, it’s actually startling how the debate about their use seems to not have entered the public consciousness in the way that one might feel it needs to, given the legal and political issues that it raises. The way Guy [Hibbert] has written the script, you’re constantly seeing this particular operation from multiple points of view, including, importantly, from the point of view of an innocent victim and her parents, which you don’t always see in cinema.

I’m a lawyer by background myself, and part of the challenge was presenting these arguments so that they are acceptable to lawyers and at the same time accessible to a lay public. Because we want to broaden the conversation as much as possible without in any way simplifying it. I hope that it’s not just the arguments and the dialogue in the film that contribute to the debate, but also, for an audience who doesn’t know what a Hellfire is or where a pilot sits, you now have an accessible way of visualizing it. On a visceral level, people might be saying, “OK, get on with it, pull the trigger, take out the bad guy,” in these simplistic terms, but when that Hellfire strikes, however precise you think this weapon is, when bricks and mortar fly and shrapnel flies, the notion that you could actually perfectly predict collateral damage disappears out of the window in a sequence of visuals.

I wanted the audience to feel as though they are participating in the film. In a way, the audience is the jury. They are listening to arguments, they are being asked to form an opinion, and hopefully that prompts them into conversation instead of allowing them to be passive observers of the film.

You’ve said that the script was in development years ago, but it seems prescient now that Britain has joined the Unites States in carrying out these kinds of strikes, with the killing of two British citizens in Syria in September.

Hood: When we made the film, there hadn’t been a drone strike against a British citizen. When the British drone strikes in Syria happened, I was like, “Oh my god, does this negate our film?” But I actually think it validates it.

And on the issue of citizenship: I grew up in South Africa. My father was British; I have a British passport; I have a South African passport; I have an American green card. Given that I was born in Africa, when I hear Americans and British talking about citizenship, I can’t help but think, what does that mean exactly? That there’s somehow a greater protection afforded a human being because of an accident of birth? I think, do you know how utterly racist it sounds when you even have that conversation? As though special rules should apply to a U.S. citizen when you’re firing a missile in the so-called sovereign territory of another nation?

In the United States, it’s been a way into the conversation. It got more conservative libertarians interested, and became a controversy. But you’re right that there’s an underlying racism — after all, the only civilian casualties the U.S. government has acknowledged have been Westerners.

Hood: It’s disgusting actually, but let’s take it further. Through this policy, are we escalating or de-escalating the conflict that we’re in? The real question at the end of the movie is not: Did we do or not do the right thing in targeting these suicide bombers? The real lingering question is: What about this population that felt this missile come down on them?

I remember as a young law student in South Africa, at the height of apartheid, in the early and mid-80s, there would be security police on campus every two weeks with their tear gas, beating up students for having our rallies and protests. What we were studying, as young lawyers, was the American constitution. That document meant something, and it was something to aspire to. I think the abandonment of our principles is actually the security risk.

What was your research process like for this film? What kind of technical advice did you get?

Hood: We were asked if we would like technical support from the U.S. Air Force’s film division, and we declined it, politely. But I did speak to people in the military, including drone pilots, who gave me great insight into the way the program works. Within the military itself, there is still debate on these things; it’s not as if the military has one point of view, and it’s important to honor that.

Were you concerned about the way in which the intelligence in the film was presented so cleanly, and the technology functioning so perfectly, when in fact many drone strikes take place under much less certain circumstances?

Hood: This is not about where technology is at; it’s about where technology is going. The core of the argument to me is, assuming you know everything, what are the moral and political and ethical questions that are left? What policies are we going to adopt? How are we going to bring this complex situation into a proper legal framework? Those questions are only enhanced the more the technology becomes actually as precise as promised.

Top photo: Director Gavin Hood (left) and actress Helen Mirren on the set of Eye in the Sky.

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