Military Movies & Video Games

'Eye in the Sky' takes on the rules of targeting terror

It was never meant to be a kill mission. Yet leaders at the highest ranks of the military and government quickly learned just how lines become blurred when the persistence of an extremist group knows no limits — and no mercy.

This is the theme of the new film, "Eye in the Sky," starring big names such as Helen Mirren, Alan Rickman and Aaron Paul. The film follows the British military's objective to keep watch over enemy combatants defecting to Al-Shabaab in Kenya. The operation cannot be carried out, however, without a U.S. Reaper, poised with two hellfires (just in case).

Soon, both the Brits and the Americans, right down to the remotely piloted aircraft pilot himself, played by Paul, have a dilemma: under whose authority does the mission move from "capture" to "kill"?

The 102-minute film keeps the audience absorbed in the singular story line which breaks off into not two, but almost a dozen narratives focusing the problematic rules of engagement. In a life-imitates-art coincidence, the film is being released shortly after the U.S. military announced that it conducted a large manned and unmanned strike against Al-Shabaab militants in Somalia, reportedly killing 150 suspected fighters.

"What is tricky from a legal and policy point of view right now, and there is great debate within military, within the Justice Department about what rules govern this new world of warfare," Hood continued. "Is the battlefield now defined by wherever that individual who declares himself an enemy ideologically an enemy of the West or the United States? Is the battlefield wherever that person goes, even within our own country?"

EITS_00534_R Helen Mirren stars as Colonel Katherine Powell in the dramatic thriller, EYE IN THE SKY, a Bleecker Street release. Credit: Keith Bernstein / Bleecker Street
EITS_00534_R Helen Mirren stars as Colonel Katherine Powell in the dramatic thriller, EYE IN THE SKY, a Bleecker Street release. Credit: Keith Bernstein / Bleecker Street

Helen Mirren stars as Col. Katherine Powell in the dramatic thriller "Eye in the Sky," a Bleecker Street release.

Photo Credit: Keith Bernstein/Bleecker Street

In the film Col. Katherine Powell, played by Mirren, targets, in what she says is a six-year operation, two British nationals in Aal-Shabaab’s ranks. A U.S. citizen also joins their group, and soon begins their deeper plan that would put more lives in danger. 

The parties watching the lurking calamity know what's at stake. Lt. Gen. Frank Benson (Rickman) acts as liaison between members of parliament and the British foreign ministry — as the Americans hover on standby.

"The Americans have a system for dealing with this," Hood said, relaying why the Brits were at the center of the colossal conversation. British citizens are not as open to strikes against their own regardless of their motives, Hood said, citing a drone strike in September in Syria of which Prime Minister David Cameron received criticism.

The confusion begins when an innocent comes into view. On his first ever RPA mission, 2nd Lt. Steve Watts (Paul) stationed at Creech Air Force Base, Nevada, questions the colonel's procedures.

"If he was a pilot with 20 years of experience doing this, he would be a very different — he would be in a very different position in relation to the audience [than] to have a pilot doing it for the first time," Hood told Air Force Times.

The Air Force has faced a shortage of RPA pilots, now steadfast on a course to train more. "We expect that in [2016], we will train about 334 remotely piloted aircraft pilots," almost double than in previous years, Chief of Staff Gen. Mark Welsh said in a state of the Air Force briefing March 7.

Welsh mentioned that RPA pilots are "attack pilots, as we call them now."

"What kind of person — what psychological profile is a question the military is asking — is best suited to this job?" Hood continued. Hood said that because RPA pilots are increasingly suffering from post-traumatic stress like many of their fellow service members, "they are not coping. It is confusing because they are safe."

What "Eye in the Sky" accurately illustrates is how the U.S. military — and its Western allies — grapple with aerial warfare at a distance:

Are RPAs the future of warfare? Or are they merely a tool that creates more questions than answers?

"It is very important that people understand I believe we have to win this war" [against terrorism], said Hood, who served two years in the South African military.

"The temptation to dehumanize the enemy is great because then it helps us do our job without guilt," he said.

"But it is not ultimately the way to win a war because if you alienate entire populations because of the way you describe them ... you are not making our job as a society of winning this big-picture war easy. You are making it harder."

Written by Guy Hibbert, "Eye in the Sky" opens in select cities on March 11.

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