Eye in the Sky
by director Gavin Hood
When I first read Guy Hibbert’s extraordinary screenplay for Eye in the Sky it was like an invitation to a highly-charged debate. It was intelligent and provocative. It was also deeply emotional and thrilling, with characters that were profoundly human, and at times even funny. But what fascinated me most was that at its heart it presented a genuine ethical and moral dilemma.
As an ex-lawyer it reminded me of the old “trolley experiment” often presented in ethics classes, in which students are asked whether they would sacrifice one life in order to save more lives in circumstances involving an unstoppable train. (If you Google “the trolley experiment” you’ll find a bunch of good references.) Anyway, this story was the “trolley experiment” on steroids: “Would you kill an innocent bystander in order to prevent the possible—but not inevitable—deaths of up to eighty people at the hands of a suicide bomber?”
Far from offering an easy answer, Guy’s extremely tense thriller compelled the reader to consider the question from multiple characters’ points of view—and in no way told the audience what to think. It simply asked: “What would you do?” It’s an awful, humbling question that most of us will hopefully never have to face. The answer of course depends on how each member of the audience weighs the positions taken by the multiple characters involved in the “Kill Chain”—from Helen Mirren’s military intelligence officer who has been tracking a terror suspect for six years; to Aaron Paul’s drone pilot preparing for his first targeted assassination; to Alan Rickman’s army general who liaises between a colonel (Mirren) he admires and politicians he despises; to Barkhad Abdi’s heroic on-the-ground undercover agent in Kenya risking his life operating micro-drones inside the target house; to Iain Glen’s politically sophisticated foreign secretary suffering food poisoning in Singapore.
Of course, what is difficult about these “trolley experiment” scenarios is that one is always in search of a neat, perfect solution to an ethical dilemma: a solution that will cover all possible scenarios. And often there just isn’t one. Change the facts just a little and you might need to rethink your entire position. What if the number of likely deaths from the suicide bombers is not eighty, but eight? Or eight hundred? What if we moved an innocent bystander thirty yards further away from the strike zone, diminishing the likelihood of her injury by say 50 percent? Or 75 percent? Or 90?
In one of the most chilling moments in the film, one of the politicians watching the operation reminds us that, collateral damage estimates aside, there are other, less obvious, strategic questions to consider before deciding to launch a missile into a civilian neighborhood. In particular, there is the question of political blowback: How will the local population react over the loss of an innocent life from their community caused by our forces—even if we explain that the life was taken only in a quest to save more lives? Should we in fact hold back and potentially sacrifice eighty innocent lives at the hands of the enemy in order to turn the population against “them” rather than “us”—and win the so-called propaganda war?
In the end, Eye in the Sky is a thriller that raises complex ethical questions in a world where war will increasingly be fought using armed robots. The film does not offer easy answers, but I hope those who see it will be both entertained and left with plenty to talk about. That’s what Guy Hibbert’s great script did for me.