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Film / Eye in the Sky

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Eye in the Sky is a 2016 war drama/thriller film, directed by Gavin Hood and starring Helen Mirren, Aaron Paul, Barkhad Abdi, and Alan Rickman.

The film depicts the moral and ethical struggle of a lieutenant general (Rickman) and colonel (Mirren) debating a drone strike to take out a group of terrorists in Nairobi, Kenya, and has been praised for its realistic and complex portrayal of the perils of modern warfare.


Tropes found in this film include:

  • Afrofuturism: Jama Farah has a much smaller, purely surveillance, drone, different than the film's central one that is distinctly a Kenyan design disguised as a native insect and futuristic enough to wiggle into the genre's trappings.
  • Armchair Military: General Benson gets accused of this, but he retorts that he has been on the ground at the aftermath of five suicide bombings, so he does actually know what the stakes are.
  • Attack Drone: Carrie Gershon and Steve Watts operate one.
  • Bittersweet Ending / Downer Ending: They issue the drone strike and Alia dies. Whether or not this was the right call is left up to the viewer, and it can be interpreted as either a painful yet necessary victory, that sadly cost a young girl's life, or a senseless act of violence that would only fuel more hatred and fear. However, it is clear that right or not, everyone involved had a little bit of their soul die that day.
    • Furthermore, Alia's parents rush her to the hospital with the aid of militants, and if a look on her father's face is anything to go by, he may have been radicalized, a far cry from the open minded man he was shown to be earlier.
  • Both Sides Have a Point: While the people who try to pass the buck are seen as cowardly, their concerns are not exactly wrong. One example is when the foreign minister worries about how the public will react if the news gets out — Benson says they shouldn't be concerning themselves with what ends up on YouTube, but the foreign minister replies that revolutions can be started by what gets put on YouTube.
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  • Cerebus Call-Back: Lt. General Benson early on has a comical moment where he buys the wrong doll for his young daughter. After Alia is killed in the missile attack and Benson is leaving the meeting, his captain reveals he exchanged the doll for the right one.
  • Colonel Badass: Colonel Katherine Powell. Whether or not you agree with her methods, she's a brilliant military strategist with command over her men.
  • Death from Above: The entire point of the drone. Hell, the drone itself is called a Reaper, and the missiles are called Hellfire.note 
  • Death of a Child: Alia is killed horrifically.
  • Developing Doomed Characters: Alia and her family are given a lot of screentime, which showcase both her father's attempts to give his daughter a good life (such as by educating her) as well as having to hide such efforts from the terrorists. Of course, this is done so that the audience will care when bad things happen to them.
  • Dirty Coward: Everyone who tries to offload the decision onto somebody else fits this to a certain extent, but the Prime Minister takes the cake; when asked directly to authorize or forbid the strike, he comes back telling them to "do everything they can to avoid civilian casualties". Everyone is disgusted by this, and even the one who's been arguing against the strike from the beginning calls him a "bloody coward".
  • Disney Death: Horribly subverted, if not inverted. After the missile hits and she's caught in the blast zone, Alia is still alive and breathing, but dies when she gets to the hospital.
  • Ensemble Cast: There are essentially four protagonists, one for each area of the operation: Lt. General Frank Benson convening with the government officials at COBRA, Colonel Powell overseeing the op at PJHQ in Whitehall, drone pilot Lt. Steve Watts and his copilot in Nevada, and undercover Kenyan NIS agent Jama Farah scouting out the site in person.
  • Ensign Newbie: Carrie Gershon is given a significant role in a high-level mission despite being fresh out of training.
  • Even Evil Has Standards: The militants occupying the town are the ones who help take Alia to a hospital. Even they don't like the idea of a child dying in the street.
  • Everyone Has Standards: Angela Northman is vehemently against striking the missile, and wholeheartedly disagrees with her coworkers' positions. However she is absolutely disgusted with the Prime Minister when he refuses to approve or disapprove the strike.
  • Extremely Short Timespan: The film takes place over the course of a few long and hectic hours.
  • Foreshadowing: Near the beginning, Powell rebukes a sergeant for lightening the drone's payload to increase its airtime without clearing it with her, which becomes ironic when she spends the rest of the film wishing she didn't have to clear her decision with various other people in government.
  • Four-Star Badass: Lt. General Frank Benson, automatically, by virtue of being played by Alan Rickman.
  • From Bad to Worse: The mission was originally going to have Kenyan forces arrest the terrorists, with the drone as the eponymous "eye in the sky" — just giving recon support. But then the terrorists move to a location beyond the reach of the ground forces. And it's discovered they're building bomb vests for a suicide attack, so the mission is hastily changed from "capture" to "kill." And then it's discovered that a child is selling bread inside the blast radius....
  • Gory Discretion Shot: Averted in the beginning with a photo of an informant executed by the terrorists and at the end, after the strike, when the drone is used to identify the terrorist's bodies ... or at least what's left of them.
  • Grey-and-Gray Morality: Not when it pits the good guys versus the terrorists, but the central conflict of the film itself is whether it is right to kill a group of terrorists about to embark on a suicide mission, when you know that collateral damage will kill a completely innocent person, here a little girl. People debate and argue about the morality of it, and by the end it's clear that no matter what happens, the outcome will suck.
    • Lose the propaganda war by preemptively bombing a terrorist hideout, or win the propaganda war by allowing the terrorists to destroy a shopping mall?
  • Heroic BSoD: Lt. Watts and A1C Gershon after they execute the strike. All their commanding officer can do is tell them they did a good job and that they'll need to be back at their posts tomorrow.
  • Hope Spot: Several, all brutal.
    • Jama almost manages to collect all of Alia's bread and move her out of the danger zone, but gets spotted, loses the bread, and she just picks it back up and goes back to selling it in the same spot.
    • Jama later pays a local boy to go buy Alia's remaining bread, but she doesn't make it out of the blast zone in time.
    • Despite being caught in the blast zone, Alia is still alive...for a few minutes, only to succumb to her wounds by the time she reaches the hospital.
  • Hopeless War: The general consensus of the film is that regardless of whatever outcome was taken in the film's central conflict, war against terror and war in general is as hopeless as it is perpetual.
  • I Did What I Had to Do: The higher ups, Col. Powell in particular, take this attitude after the strike kills the terrorists, but also Alia as well.
  • Kill the Cutie: Poor Alia.
  • Manly Tears: Steve Watts lets loose a few as he fires the drones.
  • The McCoy: The lone minister who flatly opposes the strike from the beginning, saying she would accept the risk of the bombers killing dozens over the high probability of killing a child. Though her own moral code is clearly at odds with the military's, it is made clear that her decision is not based on cowardice or politics; she sticks to her position right from the start, and she is disgusted by the constant attempts to avoid taking responsibility for it or prioritize the PR fallout over Alia's life.
  • A Million Is a Statistic: Discussed. The characters are debating whether it is right to endanger one child's life in order to potentially save dozens of others.
  • Nice Job Breaking It, Hero: The first thing they try to do once Alia shows up, is to buy her all her bread to get her out of the way. Jama goes down there, and even manages to get all of the bread into his bucket, but he gets recognized and a chase ensues. In an attempt to slow them down, he tossed his bucket at his chasers. Alia simply picks up the bread, and tries to resell them.
  • The Needs of the Many: Those in favor of the drone strike argue that at least eighty people (possibly more) would die if the suicide bombers are left alive to carry out an attack, against one girl.
  • No Celebrities Were Harmed:
    • "Susan Helen Danford" is based strongly on Samantha Lewthwaite, a white British woman who converted to Islam and became radicalised at a young age, and went on to become a terrorist leader.
    • Averted with the main terrorist group, as Al-Shabaab is a real organisation operating in East Africa. While they declared allegiance to Al-Qaeda in 2012, they've been mostly inactive in recent years due to taking heavy losses following Operation Indian Ocean, a joint military operation between Somalia and the United States which ultimately resulted in their leader being killed by a drone strike.
  • Obstructive Bureaucrat:
    • Col. Powell (and to an extent Gen. Benson) see the various government officials overseeing the mission as this.
    • Averted though with the US Secretary of State, who quickly gives his authorization to kill the terrorists (one of whom is a US citizen), and is annoyed they even wasted time asking him, since US policy is quite clear that those joining terrorist groups forfeit the protection of their citizenship.
    • Discussed when Colonel Powell's legal adviser (who has repeatedly been telling her to get permission from someone higher up the chain of command,) specifically tells her the law is not there to get in her way, it is to protect everyone — her included — from the fallout of difficult decisions.
  • Pet the Dog: After Alia is fatally injured by the strike, the people who actually take her to hospital are the militants, who swiftly disassemble the gun mount on the back of their truck to make room for her to lie down.
  • Pyrrhic Victory: Colonel Powell and her subordinates successfully eliminate a group of high-level terrorists and suicide bombers, but at the cost of the life of an innocent girl.
  • "The Reason You Suck" Speech: Downplayed. After the strike goes ahead and Alia is caught in it, General Benson is accused of having an Armchair Military attitude to it (see above for his response). He finishes by simply saying "Never tell a soldier he doesn't know the cost of war" with a tone that suggests he's too sick and tired of the bloodshed to even get angry.
    • However, the undersecretary's remark to him can also be understood as one of those: The object described as "disgraceful" is open to interpretation whether it refers to the drone attack or the prolonged pass-the-buck morality discussion.
  • Retirony: Inverted. Carrie is on her first flight out of school, and is suddenly called upon to take part in an emergency assassination.
  • Sadistic Choice: If they fire on the terrorists with the drone, an innocent child will probably die. If they don't, the terrorists could very well blow up a crowded area where at least eighty people will probably die.
  • Screw the Rules, I'm Doing What's Right!:
    • Near the end, Colonel Powell asks one of the soldiers to fudge the survival percentage estimate to be slightly below half, so that the higher ups will be more comfortable with launching the missile.
    • A slightly more positive example occurs earlier when Lt. Watts refuses to fire the missile, telling Col. Powell he will not fire until he receives a revised attack plan that would minimize the chance of the girl being killed as much as possible. This leads to her ordering her subordinate to fudge the numbers.
  • Surveillance Drone: The "eye in the sky," so to speak.
  • There Is No Kill Like Overkill: After hitting the terrorists' house with a Hellfire missile, it's revealed that one of the terrorists is still alive, albeit heavily wounded. They promptly shoot her with the predator drone's second Hellfire missile.
  • Title Drop: Colonel Powell refers to the drone as "our eye in the sky" early in the movie. Lt. General Benson also uses the phrase later on.
  • Token Trio: The three American pilots. Lt. Steve Watts is a white man, Sgt. Mike Gleeson is a black man and A1C Carrie Gershon is a white woman.
  • Unwitting Instigator of Doom:
    • Alia is merely selling her bread from the usual place she does so every day. She has no idea that she is prompting a massive dispute among two nations and giving a group of terrorists with suicide vests the chance to escape being blown up.
    • Subverted with Jama Farah. He gives a young boy money to buy all of Alia's bread just as the missile is preparing to be launched, putting him in the danger zone too. Although it's a huge Oh, Crap! moment for everyone else, the boy gets away in time.
  • The War Room: Due to the multinational effort behind the mission, there are several command centres that appear in the film:
    • The mission is headed up by Col. Powell and her men in Permanent Joint Headquarters (PJHQ) in Northwood, London.
    • Lt. General Benson, the Attorney General and various cabinet ministers observe the missions progress from the Cabinet Office Briefing Rooms (COBRA) in Whitehall, London.
    • The drone pilots operate and oversea the control of the UAV from Creech Air Force Base, Nevada.
    • Facial identification of the missions targets is carried out by USAF officers stationed at Joint Base Pearl Harbor–Hickam, Hawaii.
    • Kenyan Special Forces soldiers await on standby and communicate with their intelligence agents on the ground from a large makeshift warehouse base in Nairobi, Kenya.
  • Would Not Shoot a Civilian: Or would they, if it meant saving countless others? One of the central questions of the film.