The question remains: when to use a weapon of war? And what are the consequences of using that weapon?
Drone warfare on the big screen was launched by The Good Kill last year and now gathers intensity with Eye In The Sky, a British thriller set in the shadowy world of remotely piloted drone warfare. It is helmed by South African director Gavin Hood from an original screenplay by Guy Hibbert.
Following on from his 2007 film Rendition, director Gavin Hood returns to the realm of contemporary warfare with the tense thriller Eye in the Sky, which explores both the practical application and the ethical ramifications of drone warfare.
“I was aware of all the different aspects of drone warfare,” begins Hood, “because I’d made a film about American military adventures with Rendition. I’d read articles, I’d read opinions and I’d read books. I had always tried to keep up-to-date with what was happening in the American military but I hadn’t taken a deep dive into this very specific question of targeted assassination.”
In Eye In The Sky London-based military intelligence officer Colonel Katherine Powell (Academy Award winner Helen Mirren) is remotely commanding a top secret drone operation to capture a group of dangerous terrorists from their safe-house in Nairobi, Kenya. The mission suddenly escalates from a “capture” to a “kill” operation as Powell realizes that the terrorists are about to embark on a deadly suicide mission. From his base in Nevada, American drone pilot Steve Watts (Breaking Bad star and Emmy Award winner Aaron Paul) is poised to destroy the safe-house when a nine year old girl enters the kill zone just outside the walls of the house. With unforeseen collateral damage now entering the equation, the impossible decision of when to strike gets passed up the “kill chain” of politicians and lawyers as the seconds tick down.
The opportunity to explore this highly contentious aspect of modern warfare came when Hood read the Eye in the Sky script from screenwriter Guy Hibbert, who has written the films Five Minutes of Heaven (2009), Omagh (2004) and Shot Through the Heart (1998) as well as contributing to a number of highly acclaimed British television series.
For Hibbert, the life of an innocent African child caught up in a global conflict, was reason enough to write the screenplay. “It’s difficult to make films where victims are key characters, since they are victims of somebody else’s energy,” he says.
“It was a real challenge. But I was looking at warfare and thinking that victims in the world often don’t get a proper place in storytelling. Alia was my way of working out how to make the victim the driving force in the story.”
“I knew drones and computerised warfare were going to become more and more prevalent in the 21st century,” explains Hibbert, “and I thought, ‘Well, no one is writing about this, so let’s have a look at it.’”
Hibbert visited an arms-fair in Paris “and drones were just everywhere,” he says. “Every arms manufacturer had brought out a new bit of kit. Then I started talking to the military and they said that there had never been a public debate about this form of warfare.
“What troubled them was that in traditional warfare, the commander is on the ground and he makes a decision in the moment. That is not true with drone warfare and so exploring that idea seemed a good starting point for a movie.”
The script was developed with producers Colin Firth and Ged Doherty. “I loved the ideas in Guy’s script,” Doherty explains, “and eventually we got it in front of Gavin Hood, who is a tremendous director.”
Hood’s interest was sparked by the questions that the script posed: “Here was a piece by a very talented writer that generated something which could spark a conversation among the general public and the general media,” the director says. “It created a situation that didn’t provide an easy answer.”
The situation unfolds in Nairobi, Kenya. American and British military chiefs are afforded the opportunity to remotely assassinate a key terrorist target, Susan Danford (Lex King), also known as Ayesha al-Hady, an English convert and high-value al-Shabab terror suspect.
The narrative then focuses on the men and women on the ground that are charged with tracking the terrorist subject, as well as personnel in Kenya, the UK and the US, including high-ranking military and political figures, along with the drone pilot and his team. Together, these figures form the ‘kill chain’, an attack structure that co-ordinates target identification and the specific force dispatched to remove the target. It also incorporates all those discussing and giving the orders to attack the target, and those finally responsible for implementing the destruction of the target itself.
“Kill Chain was my original title for the film,” notes Hibbert. “Through centuries of warfare, the general in the field has always been in command of the decision whether to shoot or not to shoot. With computerized warfare, images are now sent to everybody’s desktop all over the world, and all these different people want input.
“The military call this the kill chain and that poses important questions. Who has the power to make that decision, to press that button? Is it the politicians, or the general in London, or the general in the US, or the commander in Kenya? The people about to be killed in our story include a Kenyan, two Brits and an American, so who makes the decision?”
The decision to destroy the targets is further complicated by the problem of collateral damage, which again has to be measured from afar.
“Guy’s script created a very complex scenario,” continues filmmaker Gavin Hood, a South African filmmaker who counts the likes of Ender’s Game (2013), X-Men Origins: Wolverine (2009) and Tsotsi (2005) among his directing credits. “The script is informative in the way that it sets up the landscape, the chain of command and the way modern drone warfare is used.
“We see how profoundly human emotions are tested in a difficult scenario. Then, with the audience being made aware of the process, we can begin to debate the merits of using this technology.”
The question remains: when to use a weapon of war? And what are the consequences of using that weapon? The weapon may be effective at taking out a target but what are the unintended consequences of using the weapon?
As Hood identifies, when a Hellfire missile is fired from a high-flying drone, it’s not as precise as a sniper’s bullet. “They give rise to very large explosions, throwing lots of debris around,” the director explains. “Inevitably, when you see that explosion in the film it becomes very difficult to argue that no collateral damage could occur. On the contrary, you see that it very easily can occur.
“In using this weapon, however careful you are, it can result in collateral damage and we must ask what is the effect of that collateral damage on the local population and on their feelings towards the western world?
“I think what Guy’s script does so brilliantly is to invite this genuine conversation,” he adds. “It is not simplistic. The dilemmas faced by the characters in the film are real and not easily solved. Their responses to these dilemmas are profoundly human and I hope that the audience can find something in the film to connect to, whether it is the emotional response of the drone pilot or the response of the commander in Kenya, or those in London or the US.”
The collateral damage caused by a drone strike extends beyond potential human casualties. The killing of civilians, even accidentally, has a profound impact on the propaganda war.
“That is a very important conversation,” says Hood. “Are drone strikes, which inevitably do result in civilian casualties, actually generating so much anti-Western sentiment that whatever success they may have in taking out a high-value individual, is offset by a growing animosity for the West? That’s a propaganda question. In war, propaganda is an extremely important tool. Are we creating negative propaganda towards the West through the use of drones?
“I think the film asks whether we really are winning when using this form of warfare. Are we really winning when using these drones? When should we use this technology? What are the consequences of using this technology? Come and see this movie and you can decide for yourself.”
For the filmmakers, it was vital that the narrative posed these difficult questions while asking the audience to decide on the answers. “What you don’t want to do as a director is preach to your audience,” says Hood. “You want to create a sense of pace, a sense of tension, a thriller, while at the same time, raising difficult, philosophical questions in the mind of the audience.
“In order to do that you have to keep the story moving forward so as to keep the tension alive, while at the same time finding moments where the story breathes, which allows the audience to catch up. You need to give the audience time to process the arguments.
“And then, just when the audience thinks they have sided with one particular argument, you throw in another argument that turns it on its head and has the viewer asking, ‘Wait a minute, do I really think what I just thought a minute ago? No, maybe I don’t.’ And just when they’re agreeing with someone else, here comes another point of view.”
The film was shot in or around Cape Town, South Africa, apart from the Nevada Desert Air Force base, which was filmed around five hours north of the city in the Karoo desert. “The rest of the film was shot in or around Cape Town Film Studios,” says producer Ged Doherty.
“The Nairobi scenes were all shot on the back lot at the studios. They are the equivalent of Pinewood in the UK and the set that you see for Nairobi was originally the set for The Long Walk To Freedom that we adapted thanks to our production designer, Johnny Breedt, who also worked on that film. We took his Soweto set from that film and converted it into our modern-day Nairobi.”