Ethical dilemmas abound in Eye in the Sky and the filmmakers respect the audience enough that they don’t preach an easy conclusion. Although a course of action is finally decided upon, the viewer is left to wonder, “If I were in that situation, what would I have done?” or even, “What is the right thing to do in this situation?” There are no easy answers and I could feel the same tension that the characters experienced.
Helen Mirren plays Colonel Katherine Powell, in charge of a mission to capture terrorists, including a British national (Lex King), meeting at a home in Kenya. Through hi-tech surveillance, including tiny cameras in remote controlled mechanical bugs, Powell can see all that’s going on in Kenya from her headquarters in Sussex. In fact, the op to capture the terrorists includes General Frank Benson (Alan Rickman in his final role), watching on a screen from his office in London, surrounded by the political and legal leaders of the country; the drone pilots (Aaron Paul and Phoebe Fox) sitting behind their computer consoles in a bunker outside Las Vegas; the officer who verifies the targets via facial recognition software in Hawaii; and the undercover agents on the ground in Kenya.
Once Powell realizes the targets are planning a suicide bomb attack, the mission changes from capture to kill in order to save the lives of those who would otherwise die in the suicide bombings. Only one catch, just as he’s receiving the order to launch the Hellfire missile attached to his drone, the pilot Watts (Paul) notices that a young girl has just stationed herself outside the house to sell bread. If they drop the missile now, chances are very high she will die. As the one who has to actually pull the trigger, Watts requests another look at the situation to see if it can be resolved without making this girl collateral damage.
Thus ensues a long game of “pass the buck.” Benson has to give the final OK to proceed with the mission. He checks with the Attorney General to see if it would be legal. No one wants to be responsible for the fallout of killing this girl. Everyone “refers up” to their superiors and yet there is hesitation. It could be a PR nightmare if the whole things ends up on YouTube. Some argue that this girl is acceptable collateral damage in the light that, if the suicide bombings are allowed to happen, many more would die as a result. Back and forth they go until a decision is finally made.
What makes this movie and its ethical dilemma so moving is that all the players are ordinary people doing their jobs, following orders. Benson is trying to find the right doll for his own daughter. After the harrowing events of the day, everyone involved, with the power of life and death in their hands, goes home and will come back to work tomorrow. All in a day’s work.
And each audience member is left with the question: what would I have done? Definitely a film to ponder oneself and tease out the question by entering into conversation with others.