Last night we had booked tickets to see "Eye in the Sky", with Helen Mirren, Alan Rickman, and a very good supporting cast. Here is the blurb on the cinema website:
For years, Operation Cobra has been tracking the movements of a radicalised British woman who joined the Somali terrorist group Al-Shabab in Kenya. Now she's finally in their sights. In a London Cabinet Office briefing room, officials join Lieutenant General Frank Benson (Alan Rickman) to remotely observe her capture. But everything changes when commanding officer Colonel Katherine Powell (Helen Mirren) learns that an imminent suicide bombing is being planned in the target's house. The 'capture' mission promptly becomes a 'kill' one. But then a US drone pilot (Aaron Paul) spots a little girl in the kill zone. Is she acceptable collateral damage? Helen Mirren is on mesmerising form in Rendition director Gavin Hood's tense and highly relevant drama exploring the ethics of remote warfare. It also features the late Alan Rickman's final live-action screen performance.
This film is a hard examination in the ethics of modern weaponry, the lethal necessities of anti-terrorist operations, the intelligence capacities of advanced technological surveillance techniques, and the tensions between political vacillation and military decision making. I would say this is essential viewing for all of us who have ever been outraged or pleased at reports of drone strikes, confirmed terrorist eliminations, and regrettable collateral damage. This is the story of planned indiscriminate death by terrorists, and planned pre-emptive death on the small scale to avoid that greater catastrophe. Except we spend half an hour getting to know and care for the young girl, playing in her yard, selling her mother's home baked bread, and secretly learning maths to have a better chance of life and freedom. The result is a jolting collision of emotions, for the audience and for the key players in the film.
I was gripped for the entire 102 minutes. I cared for this young girl and her family; I cared for the two young drone pilots, remotely observing on screens a child playing with a hula hoop and selling bread, and I cared that within the same compound, unknown to her family, two young radicalised men were being loaded with suicide vests. And I knew that one way or another people were about to die. But who? By whose hand? For what purpose? In what numbers?
The film is a powerful exploration of the moral wilderness that is modern hi-tech warfare, with no landmarks of normativity, no oases of certainty, no places to hide from the choices by which people live or die. The film brilliantly exposed the dilemmas facing the Western democracies, confronted by enemies who wish their destruction as an ideological and religiously driven goal funded by their own deaths. The contrast of mindset and worldview between Islamic extremism and Western liberalism creates in this film unbearable tensions between moral imperatives, political aims and risks, and military options; you san feel, smell and see those tensions for every one of the key characters in the briefing room, the drone control centre, and the operations centre. We are allowed to observe and overhear the arguments for a strike, the counter arguments for aborting the mission, the search for authorisation from Attorney General, to Foreign secretary, to Prime Minister, US Secretary of State, and all along the chain the conflicted interests of politicians watching their own backs, as elected representatives have to do.
At the heart of the film, a child. The personalising of the mathematics of collateral damage is brilliantly achieved. A child dancing with a hula hoop in a summer dress, goes to sell bread dressed as a muslim woman under shariah law. A child selling bread and happily playing, within metres of a high grade terrorist cell plotting imminent mass murder. The search for compromise by the politicians, the insistence of the military for an immediate authorisation to strike with hellfire missiles, the surveillance by two young American drone pilots, showing huge amounts of high explosives being fitted with religious reverence around the bodies of two other young people, leaves the viewer no alternative but to join the debate, and hear the cost and consequences of action, or inaction.
At a key moment the horrible realities of propaganda and political fallout are clarified. Let the suicide bombers go and do their murderous worst, and world reaction will demonise Al-Shabab and make the prosecution of war against them more justified. Eliminate the terrotist cell while knowingly killing an innocent child and her family, and world reaction will condemn an act which is no different from, and no better than, those they oppose. What this film does is haul us into the ops centre of anti-terrorist intelligence, denying the luxury of ignorance or not wanting to know. The nature of warfare, the military weaponry options, the nature and methods and aims of the often unknown and concealed enemy, the catastrophic loss of life and the extent of human suffering every time a terrorist offensive is successful, the near impotence of military strategy to deal with an enemy whose own death triggers their weapons, all create a nightmare world of dangerous ambiguity, moral confusion and political wariness. A virtual reality world of remote warfare, drones, satellites, advanced surveillance, has changed forever the rules of military engagement.
I came out of the dark cinema, having been glued to a screen showing darkened rooms, computer screens showing images of a world where high tech surveillance was juxtaposed with bread making and a hula hoop, and in which a child with a hoped for good future played within yards of two young men whose future was mortgaged to their radicalised goal of self-immolation for purposes of mass death in the name of their god. And I came out into sunshine and the sound of the waves of the North Sea a hundred yards away. And I ask, which world is real - the sunlit sea front, or the darkened room with its computerised intelligence, defence and counter terrorist hardware, or the oil lit hut in Somalia where terrorism is prayed over and planned within a liturgy of hate and lethasl intent, or the back yard where a child plays in the sunlight from the same sun? And in all of this, where does the hula hoop and the bread fit in, and who makes the choice whether the child with a hoped for future will be allowed to live into that future, or become one more cipher in the mathematics of collateral damage estimates?