Eye in the Sky: The Perils of War in the 21st Century

Helen Mirren in Eye in the Sky.
Helen Mirren stars in "Eye in the Sky," a new Hollywood blockbuster that explores the impact of drone strikes on both the pilots and potential victims. eOne

War often seems to have its own morbid sense of timing.

That appears to be the case with the release of Hollywood thriller Eye in the Sky, which homes in on the challenges raised by modern warfare by posing a hypothetical scenario involving members of the Al-Shabab militant group on the verge of committing suicide attacks in the Kenyan capital Nairobi.

Just weeks before the film—which stars Helen Mirren, Alan Rickman and Aaron Paul—first hit theaters in the United States, the Pentagon confirmed that a series of manned and unmanned drone strikes had taken out some 150 militants from the Somali group gathered at a training camp 195 kilometers (120 miles) north of the capital Mogadishu.

For Guy Hibbert, the film's screenwriter, the incident merely re-emphasizes the "whole new way of conducting war" that is prevalent in the 21st century—rather than soldiers facing off on a battlefield, military superpowers are able to pick off specific targets from the comfort of their own domestic bases.

Such methods, however, come with concomitant risks, both for the actors and the civilian victims who potentially end up as collateral damage. Eye in the Sky seeks to explore the challenges of drone warfare by placing a potential victim of drone strikes at the center of the narrative—a nine-year-old girl selling bread in an impoverished Nairobi slum, who pitches her stall right outside a house containing two Al-Shabab suicide bombers, the bombmaker and other senior officials from the Al-Qaeda affiliated group.

The film hinges on whether the joint U.S.-U.K. military team conducting a counter-terrorism operation against the targets decide to strike the house, thereby likely killing the girl in the process. Putting the victim at the heart of the film was important, says Hibbert, who adds that civilians have constituted an estimated 75-80 percent of the casualties of war since the conclusion of the Second World War in 1945, "and yet they're never the subject of war films."

Besides the glaring issue of collateral damage, the movie also explores the psychological impact on drone pilots of remotely pulling the trigger. Hibbert says he was keen to investigate the effect of a pilot at a military base in Las Vegas pulling the trigger and blowing up a house in Nairobi—more than 15,000 kilometers (9,000 miles) away. To do so, he employed the help of a serving U.S. drone pilot on the script. The pilot would spend mornings operating drones over Afghanistan and afternoons working through Hibbert's script in Los Angeles.

According to the screenwriter, combatants in modern drone warfare have lost the "band of brothers" style camaraderie that helps soldiers process the effects of war. "Think about a drone pilot. He drives to the base alone… he goes into the container, spends all day watching the screens and maybe he will pull the trigger and kill somebody. Then he'll leave the container and he'll drive back home. Then maybe he'll read a bedtime story to his kid or argue with his wife or go drinking with his mates, [but] he's not processing what's happening to him, what he's just done."

The film is set in the Nairobi suburb of Eastleigh, an area predominantly populated by immigrants from neighboring Somalia. The residents of the Horn of Africa state know full well the effects of modern warfare—the U.S. has been conducting covert operations in Somalia since 2007, or maybe earlier, and has carried out at least four drone strikes in the first four months of 2016, according to the Bureau of Investigative Journalism.

For Hibbert, it is important to consider the impact such actions may have further down the line. "In 10 years' time, it'll be reversed—they [militant groups like Al-Shabab] will have the equipment, they'll have the robotic mechanisms, and they'll be able to do to us what we're doing now [to them] and we better think about that," he says.

Eye in the Sky opens in U.K. cinemas on April 15.

Eye in the Sky: The Perils of War in the 21st Century | Culture