15 April 2016

Eye In The Sky: Drone drama comes of age


Now the terrorists are on the screen in front of you, live, just as it happens. Their bombs are primed and ready for use, today. Their automatic weapons are loaded. Yet all the while above the jihadi house a Reaper drone circles at 20,000 feet, its missiles locked on to the very room where the suicide attack is being assembled. Out in the street civilians pass. Just feet from the bomb factory a young girl sells bread from a stall. Do you fire the missile?

Eye In The Sky is a potent thriller about a fictional British drone strike in present-day Kenya. The drama is full-on and unrelenting: with no preamble and no messing about with character or backstory, Eye In The Sky unfolds in close to real time. Fully armed with mainstream star actors including Helen Mirren, the late Alan Rickman, Barkhad Abdi (the Somali actor who won a BAFTA for his role in Captain Phillips) and Aaron Paul from Breaking Bad, the film never deviates from its single storyline which follows a straight track to the moment when the decision is made.

As a big screen drama it is compelling, exciting, and a bit stomach-turning. As an account of the daily reality of drone operations, it is partly accurate. As a contribution to the debate about drone warfare, its ethics and its effects, it is somewhat wide of the target.

There is plenty in Eye In The Sky that squares with what we know about the real British drone warfare programme. The RAF does maintain its own fleet of armed Reaper drones, obtained from General Atomic of the US and based on the US Predator drone. Most likely there are ten of these armed UK drones, half of which are probably in service in Afghanistan and half in Iraq, although the Ministry of Defence has been very evasive about exact numbers, exact deployments, and more recently about exact details of missions.

Just as in the film, these real world drones are initially launched and flown remotely by local operators in the field until they reach operational height, at which point they pass into a strange realm where military tactics, high politics and computerized decisionmaking all combine in a way that is almost purpose-made for film. It is violent science fiction, minus the fiction. It is Robocop in the sky, but for real.

The film does a good job of showing the workings of the complicated and intrinsically dramatic global control network that runs a real British drone operation. In mission mode the drone is piloted via satellite by a handler at one of two USAF airbases in Nevada. The pilot is under the command of British military staff based somewhere in the UK, commands relayed through a third superior handler in the US. Spotters and spies in the field with cameras and evesdropping devices are part of this deadly interactive online network, along with political decisionmakers around the world.

What this scenario adds up to is the most chilling conference call ever devised. It’s one of those calls where everyone has their own agenda and where the nature of the final outcome gets progressively harder to hold in focus. The disconnect between well-tailored decisionmakers sitting in panelled rooms and an explosive assassination in a Nairobi suburb is stark. The audience is likely to leave the cinema in numb silence.

What Eye In The Sky lacks is much sense of the real world uncertainties that underlie this form of warfare. Most of the grey areas have been edited out. There is no uncertainty as to the legality of operating in the field – the Kenyans appear to have invited the drone strike, something that in reality is highly unlikely. There is no uncertainty as to the imminence of the terrorist threat, an unknown which attends almost every real remote-controlled drone attack. There is no uncertainty as to the identity of the targets.

These are the questions that would surround real drone attack. In order to dispose of the them Eye In The Sky has invented a fanciful technology whereby robotic birds and tiny surveillance bugs are flown into the target house, giving the drone handlers up-close video pictures and guaranteed identifications of their targets. The idea of such nano-machines has been around for a long time – they were powerfully imagined as science fiction devices half a century ago by the author Philip K Dick, who perhaps not coincidentally also wrote a novel called Eye In The Sky – and today they are a staple of online mythmaking. However, there is absolutely no evidence that they exist – although no doubt someone is working on it.

One thing this film does get absolutely right is the effect of drone attacks on their operators. An argument that is frequently aired (for example in the UN’s 2010 report on targeted killings) is that drones encourage an insouciant, video-game attitude to warfare. The picture is of drone pilots searching, tracking, and killing, and then when their shift is over breaking off casually for a pizza and six-pack in front of the TV.

However, it appears this may not be the case. The current evidence is that drone operators suffer more stress than combat pilots (See for example Objective Troy: A Terrorist, A President, And The Rise Of The Drone by Scott Shane, and the forthcoming documentary National Bird produced by Wim Wenders). The detailed, personalized imaging of the target often over many hours appears to be more disturbing than the brief, kinetic experience of battle. Drone warfare may be semi-automated, but it is also psychologically invasive. That helps explain the paradox that for many it seems more concerning than the mass destruction of conventional warfare.

Film-makers are strongly drawn to the drone story – why wouldn’t they be, when the drone itself is only the latest iteration of the movie camera? In the last two years alone there have been at least seven Hollywood films in which armed drones play a key role, and that doesn’t count surveillance drones, underwater drones, or solar powered drones that can stay in the air for weeks at a time (Airbus Defence is about to deliver two of these to the RAF).

Eye In The Sky is a sturdily conventional film, with solid performances (Aaron Paul is particularly good as the Nevada drone pilot), a workmanlike script, and money spent to good effect on the cinematography. It is a little heavy-handed and the characters are only ciphers, but it is the best mainstream movie on the subject yet. There will be many more to come.

Richard Walker is a journalist and communications advisor to financial companies.