Tuesday, April 5, 2016

Eye in the Sky

The Nail
Attack of the Drones: Showing Your Collateral

Patton loathed the modern age of warfare (circa 20th Century), not just in the movie bearing his name, but in his real life, too. Patton yearned for the era of the personal warrior, battles fought mano a mano. He learned tank strategies at West Point, devised some of them himself, but generally despaired of mechanized warfare and fantasized taking on Rommel in a one on one tank fight, like jousters. Push-button warfare, he saw no point to it, certainly no glory, certainly no triumph.

Patton was a bit crazy, but he had a point.  No triumph also means no responsibility. You can't wash your hands from a killing. Ask Pontius Pilate. Ask Lady Macbeth. No matter how far removed you may place yourself, culpability is still there. In the 40's Humphrey Bogart's characters sarcastically derided "push-button killers...killing by remote-control" especially when he was being written by
Howard Hawks. His opinion usually earned a drink thrown in his face—or worse—for the remark, as it implied cowardice, shirking off responsibility.

Modern warfare (in the 21st Century) is conducted by drones, and one could look at that as killing by remote control, if one wanted to over-simplify it. But, as the new film by Gavin Hood (X-Men Origins: Wolverine—but don't hold it against him—and Ender's Game, rather appropriately) Eye in the Sky, shows it is hardly removed from responsibility. It takes place over twelve hours, focusing on one military operation, dubbed "Operation Egret," focusing on an Al Shebaab terrorist cell in Nairobi, Kenya that has been under surveillance for several months by British military forces, the operation headed by Col. Katherine Powell (Helen Mirren). 
This particular group, made up of Kenyan, American and British fanatics with murder on their minds, is being monitored as they come from various parts of the globe to converge on one house in a small Nairobi neighborhood. What they're planning is not known, but, given their collective history, it can't be good. 
The plan is to remove them from the terror equation by capturing them and separate teams from around the globe are pressed to this purpose: In Surrey, Col. Powell heads the direct operation; at Permanent Joint Headquarters in North London the situation is being overseen by the Foreign Ministry and by Lt. General Frank Benson (Alan Rickman in what will be his last filmed performance), AG George Matherson (Richard McCabe), and observers Brian Woodale (Jeremy Northam) and Angela Northam (Monica Dolan)—their parts must have been described in the script as "insufferable bleeding hearts"; drone flight operations originate in Creech Air Force Base near Las Vegas, the pilots being 2nd Lieutenant Steve Watts (Aaron Paul) and Carrie Gershon (Phoebe Fox); charged with imaging intel at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii is Lucy Galvez (Kim Engelbrecht).
Oh, for the local angle, the "boots on the ground" are headed by Major Moses Owiti (Vusi Kunene), with close surveillance by Damisi (Ebby Weyime), she of the "hummingbird-cam" and Jama Farah (Barkhad Abdi of Captain Philips), he of the "beetle-cam," who employ these ludicrous little surveillance systems to get extraordinarily close views of the terrorists.
Then, there are the Mo'Allim family, who live in the same block as the terrorist safe-house—Fatima (Faissa Hassan), Musa (Armaan Haggio) and 8 year old Alia (Aisha Takow), who studies behind shuttered windows away from the disapproving eyes of Al Shebaab thugs. Allah knows what they'd do if they knew that she rocks a hula-hoop.
Aliah will be the focus of concern for all of the eyes in the sky, as her daily chore is to walk to a corner table and sell the bread her mother bakes. Today, her spare little stand is in a kill-zone, watched around the world and discussed in urgent tones, especially when the surveillance shows that the safe-house meeting is for the pre-blast meeting of a suicide bomber. As the C4 is unwrapped in a back bedroom, the "capture" scenario is upgraded to a "kill" scenario, the troops are ordered to stand down, and the reconnaissance drone is brought to bear as a missile launcher. The clock ticks down and the discussions go up levels of responsibility to the PM. Then the US, who is monitoring—they monitor EVERYBODY—butts in to remind that these Al Shebaabers are, after all, No's 3, 4 and 5 on the East Africa Most Wanted list, and how often do you get to pull a "hat-trick?"
The conversations turn slightly "Strangelovely" with talk of 45% versus 65% "kill probabilities," "real war" versus "propaganda war" victories, and "kill-chains," but the reality is those hovering pictures and the little girl with the bread-stand. A savage balance is weighed—her life versus the lives of the potential victims of the suicide bomber. The piloters in Vegas have their orders—if there's a 50% chance (or greater) that civilians will be killed (the "collateral assessment"), they can't launch—or, more appropriately, can go "by the book" and countermand the generals and refuse. And their evidence is on the same screen every one is looking at. That is more than a little unprecedented in modern warfare. It is certainly a far cry from "chateau generals," far removed from the repercussions of their orders. It is real. It is now. And the entire kill-chain of command must stare into the face of death, whether they're satisfied with the results or not.
I mentioned Dr. Strangelove earlier. This is more like Fail-Safe, warfare conducted in closed rooms, but, as opposed to that film, with the hand-wringing kept to a minimum (in the movie, but the film is tense enough to produce that result in an audience). Concentrated, focused, it is like a great BBC drama compressed into a taut, tense 90 minutes. Hood doesn't mess a lot with Guy Hibbert's screenplay, doesn't over-complicate it. He lets the situation and the superb crew of actors, some new, some veterans, do all the heavy lifting (one amazing bit of trivia is that the film was shot entirely in Hood's home country of South Africa).
Performances are universally good, although a bit too teary-eyed in places for professional soldiers, especially if it's more than their first week on duty. Mirren is back in her "Prime Suspect" phase with a chip on her shoulder that almost makes her hunch-backed. Paul cool and assured, even under duress, with his finger on the trigger, I was surprised by my delight at seeing Agbi, who's too keen a presence to disappear after his Oscar-nominated performance for Phillips.
And then, there's Rickman. The man died January 14th of this year and the film is dedicated to him. He also has the best, most multi-layered line (which he delivers with the cold, nuanced melancholy he excelled at), effectively ending the film as it hangs in the mind, not only because of the way it reflects on the entire film, but also in the way his reading of it complicates its wording, echoing, echoing, echoing. Eye in the Sky is provocative enough, one hopes it's not remembered solely for being his final visual bow, but he couldn't have had a better exit line.

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