There is an old ethical thought experiment called the trolley problem. The idea is that you are walking along a bridge over a train track, when you see an out of control trolley heading towards five people, tied up on the tracks and helpless.
You are next to a lever that will shift the trolley onto a different track – on that track is a single workman, doing some kind of noisy work that would prevent him hearing the train or your warnings. You cannot reach either of them before the train does. So, do you do nothing, and through inaction allow 5 people to die, or do you pull the lever and deliberately kill one man who would have otherwise lived? Eye in the Sky plays with this thought experiment to examine the moral fog of modern warfare. It’s an earnest film, wrestling with weighty material, and, I believe, sincerely wishes to avoid being flippant, or reductive. It’s also shallow, self-congratulatory and dishonest. And I hated it.
The film observes an Anglo-American co-mission attempting to capture (or kill) a group of jihadists (including radicalised westerners) in Nairobi, Kenya. Col Katherine Powell (Mirren), instructs drone pilot Steve Watts (Aaron Paul) and takes advice from General Frank Benson (the late Alan Rickman).The plan is potentially scuppere
d when Alia (Aisha Takow), a nine year old girl, sets up shop outside the terrorist’s house to sell bread.
We are briefly reminded at the films beginning that, for many people in Kenya (or Somalia, or Central African Republic, or Uganda….) the threat of such cataclysms is a constant low level hum in the background of their lives. The film attempts to extend the same humanising details towards its Kenyan characters as it does its westerners, but it doesn’t seem to know how.
We can recognise Mirren’s snoring husband or Rickman’s struggles to get the right doll for his granddaughter. We recognise Paul’s hinted at rootlessness and his co-pilot’s first day nerves. But we don’t (how could we?) recognise what life is like for Alia.
Growing up under the shadow of fundamentalist Islam, with the constant threat of violence either from Al-Shaabab or from some automated angel of death; all this she’s had to take in before she reaches double figures. It would take a lot more effort and time than this film has to do that.
Instead we get a handful of basically decent white people, glowering at monitors, deciding whether simple, innocent dark people in another country live or die. The Kenyans are not characters, they are symbols at best and plot points at worst; their only meaning in the film is the impact they have on their ‘watchers’. If Alia isn’t able to survive the impact of the drone strike, it would be just a tragedy for these people, watching it happen, miles away.
The film does try, or at least believes it’s trying, to avoid letting us off the hook, to wrap us up in the same ethical quandary our protagonists face. But it fails. At every point some cog in the machine is forced to make a potentially decisive call, they are assured by a higher up ‘It’s ok. You’re beyond culpability, you are safe.’ I began to wonder if it’s just the characters being addressed.
The title Eye in the Sky is suggestive – the implication of a viewer beyond the mess humans make, sitting in judgement, or perhaps indifference. But the film lacks the courage to properly evince either.
“All art is propaganda,” George Orwell is supposed to have written.
“But not all propaganda is art.”