'Eye in the Sky': Thriller Explores Ethical Questions of Drone Warfare

"Eye in the Sky," starring Helen Mirren, deals with the sort of dilemmas arising from increasingly automated wars. Keith Bernstein/Bleecker Street

As soon as the theater lights dim for the latest drone-centric film, Eye in the Sky, a quote fills the screen: "In war, truth is the first casualty." It's a sobering setup for the ethical dilemma at the heart of the film: Should British and American officials order a strike that would take out some of the highest-ranking members of Al-Shabab in East Africa if it means killing a nearby 9-year-old girl in the process?

The situation presented is a bit unrealistic, according to accounts by military members like former Air Force technician Cian Westmoreland, who participated in a Q&A hosted by international human rights group Reprieve following an early screening of the film. But if one also accepts that accuracy is often the first casualty in Hollywood, Eye in the Sky, which opens Friday, is an edge-of-your-seat thriller that offers moviegoers a framework for thinking critically about our increasingly automated wars.

"It's a movie about morally complex questions and very real ethical dilemmas set in the world of modern drone warfare," says director Gavin Hood (Ender's Game, Tsotsi). "It's a dramatic thriller aimed at a thinking audience of people who love films, and it leaves them with something to talk about."

For years, U.K. Colonel Katherine Powell (Academy Award-winner Helen Mirren) has been tracking a radicalized British citizen, and American drones have finally located her target inside a safe house in Kenya. But when surveillance footage shows that the militant group is preparing suicide vests for an imminent attack, Powell turns her capture mission into an order to kill.

But just as American drone pilot Steve Watts (Emmy Award-winner Aaron Paul) is about to launch the deadly Hellfire missile from a bunker in Nevada, a little girl enters the kill zone. Her presence sparks a debate about the strike's morality and legality at all levels of the U.S. and U.K. governments, which ropes in U.K. Lieutenant General Frank Benson (the late Alan Rickman, in his final on-camera role).

Related; The Anatomy of an American Drone Strike

Like his fellow drone operator Brandon Bryant, who criticized the 2015 film Good Kill for its lack of realism, Westmoreland sees Hollywood's depictions of drone warfare as an opportunity to accurately introduce civilians to a clandestine world. "It's a fantasy representation of what happens," says Westmoreland, who first came forward in November to inveigh against the U.S. drone program's efficacy. Though he sees the tactical and strategic value of drones, he doesn't believe they should be used in a country the U.S. is not at war with, "because we don't control the narrative on the ground."

In Hood's high-definition rendering, surveillance shows even minute details like clothing patterns. But in reality, Westmoreland explains, the feeds are not that crisp—dust obscures the image, and signals are poor. "The film gives you the impression that there is a great deal of accuracy," he says, adding that the depiction may mislead viewers about the quality of footage that officials are actually working with.

Westmoreland adds that the idea of a single casualty sparking a heated governmental debate is also unrealistic. The U.S. sometimes targets weddings and funerals, he explains, and it accepts a degree of human collateral damage in strikes. The White House and Pentagon contend that drones are precise weapons that have caused few civilian deaths and have killed key leaders of groups that want to harm the United States and its allies. But leaked documents published by The Intercept in October show that during one five-month period in Afghanistan, nearly 9 out of 10 casualties were due to proximity to intended targets. "One civilian would not constitute a reason to stop," Westmoreland says.

Despite straying from reality, the film offers viewers a rare opportunity to jump into the shoes of drone warfare's major players—from decision-makers to drone operators—and gain new insights.

"I always thought that drones were being flown by men and women from the comfort of a bunker, but I learned that it isn't comfortable whatsoever," says Paul. "It is a very terrifying, scary situation they are put in.... If you drop a payload on a building, you know that people are going to die, and you know that sometimes innocent civilians are going to die."

Since the filming, Mirren says, she reads news stories involving drones with a more critical eye. Discussing the recent U.S. manned and unmanned airstrike on an Al-Shabab training camp in Somalia that killed 150, she says, "Without a doubt, there were innocent people killed in that strike." And like the ethical conundrum faced in the fictional drone strike in Kenya, "that very decision had to be taken" in Somalia, she adds.

"You can debate the political and technical factors that influence the use of drone strikes as much as you like," says Hood, "but I ultimately want this film to remind us of the need for compassion, no matter where we are in the world."