‘Eye in the Sky’ Director Gavin Hood Talks Drone Warfare

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Eye in the Sky is a massively entertaining thriller about a drone strike on a terror cell in Nairobi, Kenya. Taking place over a single day, the film focuses on the British military and political command but the actual drone pilots are American and the U.S. command gets involved in the decisions about whether to take out a British national who’s joined the terror cell and just what constitutes an acceptable level of collateral damage.

The movie stars Helen Mirren and Alan Rickman (in his final movie role) as the linchpins of the British command and Aaron Paul as the American who’s pilot the drone. There’s a lot of policy debate in a great screenplay by Guy Hibbert but all of that debate is there to advance the plot in the face of a ticking clock. The story doesn’t get bogged down over-explaining the chain of command (but the studio made a helpful chart) because the filmmakers trust the script and the audience to follow along.

The movie debuted in a couple of theaters earlier in March and it’s been rolled out slowly across the country, but it’s now playing most everywhere as of this weekend.

I spoke with director Gavin Hood about the film on March 9th, right after the strike on the al-Shabab training site in Somalia. Hood, a military veteran himself, previously spoke to us about his film version of Ender’s Game. He also directed X-Men Origins: Wolverine.

This is an interesting week to be having a conversation with you, just after the drone strike in Somalia. Your movie couldn’t be more timely. And let me be enthusiastic too. I want to talk to you about what an entertaining movie it is.

Great. Well, that was the idea: Can we make an entertaining thriller that keeps you on the edge of your seat and leaves you with plenty to talk about? Can we do these two things without in any way preaching to the audience or telling them what to think? Can we offer multiple points of view and let the audience be the jury and decide what they think? I hope we found that balance. That’s certainly what we were trying to do so that we could help be part of a conversation, as opposed to punting too hard one way or the other.

We wanted to allow the characters to be true to the roles that they play in the situation and let the audience come out a little more informed about the way warfare is going and how it’s moving towards greater automation.

We wanted to have a conversation because that’s what we need as opposed to everyone taking positions, isn’t it? People entrench themselves in a position without a rigorous discussion. It drives me crazy. Hopefully ,we just have a good conversation.

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Your movie reminded me of movies from the 70’s in that sense, that a message film isn’t a message film. You put the message into a mainstream thriller.

That’s what we were trying to do. And if we’ve done that, Guy Hibbert, who I think is a wonderful writer, and I will be very, very, very pleased, so thank you.

The reaction in the press seems to suggest that people are shocked by a drone strike on this level.

No, I don’t believe I have, so it’s certainly stepping it up. What seems, and perhaps you were already more up to speed than I am on this. At first, the reports were it was a drone and then it was a drone with aircraft. Not that the principle makes any difference, I’m just curious to know if there has been clarification on what tactical weaponry was used, just for us? I mean was it drone strikes, was it multiple drones firing multiple Hellfire missiles, or was it F-16’s flying in?

Do we even know where they were launched from? Because if it was the drones, it’s all likely that they’re launched from Djibouti. If they’re fighter jets, who knows, they could have launched it from a carrier or anywhere else. Do we have any information about that?

We have the statement from American forces that there were drones and we have some anecdotal evidence from the ground that may contradict it.

Is there any evidence of whether the 150 were all Al-Shabab militants or do we have, please God, not civilians? We don’t know if there’s a blowback about it coming.

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Al-Shabab claimed this morning that there weren’t actually 150 killed, there were fewer, and that American Forces exaggerated the success of the strike.

Doesn’t this go to the quote that’s at the beginning of the movie? “In war, truth is the first casualty.” We don’t know and the truth is we probably won’t know. But what we do know, to answer your question, is how important the propaganda debate is, because that’s what we’re now talking about.

It seems to me that – one of the things I found most chilling in Guy’s script is that moment when Monica Dolan, the actress who plays the Under Secretary of State for Africa, Angela Northman, whom the audience has been thinking all along is playing the traditional maternal role, says that she’d rather Al-Shabaab killed 80 people and the local population turned against them, rather than we killed one child and lost the propaganda war.

There are two things always going on with any strike, whether that strike is by a drone or by Air Force or by Special Forces. Who did we take out? Was it worth it? And it may well be worth it, I have no sympathy for Al-Shabaab, just to be clear, none whatsoever, and I think they’re a horrendous organization. You should know, if you don’t, that the actors in that film suffered at the hands of Al-Shabaab and that’s why they are refugees in Cape Town [where the movie was filmed].

The gentleman who plays the father of the little girl and his wife are Somalis who fled Al-Shabaab. They’ve personally had family sought by Al-Shabaab. The little girl is a refugee. There are thousands of Somali refugees in Cape Town and they’ve really been pushed out of their country by this radical group.

Defining Leadership in ‘Ender’s Game’

Read our previous interview with Gavin Hood.

I have no sympathy whatsoever for Al-Shabaab, but that still requires us to ask the question, strategically, did we reduce the threat from Al-Shabaab or have we turned the local population more towards Al-Shabaab, if we missed or hit civilians or didn’t achieve the objection that we set? That is the question we have to ask all the time if we are really gonna win the long game, if we’re really going to defeat the ideology. And that’s a question that hasn’t really changed.

One can get very hung up with the idea of drone strikes and asking if drones better weapons than something else. Actually, the question, whether you’re beheading someone with a guillotine or shooting them with a sniper bullet or taking them out with a drone remains the same: have I got the right target and what is the effect of taking out the target on the local population?

If it’s beheading someone with a guillotine, it’s a really clean weapon, there’s no collateral damage, what is the crowd watching think of the person I’m beheading? Did we get the right guy or does the crowd turn against me? And that’s a political question that doesn’t change just because you’re using drones.

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It leads to another question: now you have high-level military with access to the kind of intel that they would have never had in any previous era. Do they have more responsibility for the decisions they make? Has it changed the morality of battle decisions, that the command is not in any danger while you’re making the decisions? You illustrate these questions very well in the movie.

What excited me about Guy’s script, and I hope it’s the same in the film, is that you can pause at any point in the story almost and spin off into a whole different direction. For example, you can pause on Aaron Paul’s character at certain moments and have a whole important conversation about drone pilots, what their psychological stresses are compared to fighter pilots: what is the effect of fighting a war where your own life is in no danger and yet you’re taking life?

There’s a whole area of psychology evolving around this because there’s even a move to call it perpetration-induced traumatic stress. PITS, P-I-T-S, perpetration-induced traumatic stress. It’s a very new thought. We call it post-traumatic stress disorder, but traditionally with post-traumatic stress, you are usually present for a stressful event where your life is in danger. The IED goes up next to you and your friend is killed. Here you’re way far away from the event, the actual kinetic event, you are not in danger physically, and yet you’re traumatized.

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We know that you can be traumatized because you’re forced to go back and look at the bodycount, which an F-16 pilot isn’t required to do. You have to stay in that ground control station for a long, long time and then you go home. It’s an interesting new development: what is the effect of taking life without your life being threatened in any way? It puts people in a strange relationship to death.

I guess generals have always been like that, they sat on the mountaintop and looked down on the battle below and you’ve had the politicians maneuvering things around a board.

I think I’ve digressed. My point was simply that anywhere in the movie you can pause. You can pause on the Monica Dolan moment that we were just talking about, about the collateral damage question and blowback. Should we let the enemy kill more?

Churchill faced that question when they had cracked the Enigma Code and he had to decide whether to warn shipping that the German U-boats were gonna take them out. If he did warn them, the Germans would know we cracked the Enigma Code. He elected to sacrifice those ships and those people in order not to give up the intel that we had cracked their code.

It’s the same kind of awful question and I don’t think there’s a right answer to any of these questions in a generalized sense. If the film says anything, it’s that the facts of the particular situations you’re looking at matter. If we change the facts from one little girl being potentially lost and said what if there were 10 little girls, and we potentially might save 40 lives, do you want to make that trade? What if it’s 1 little girl for 5,000?

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I guess that brings me back to your first question. I don’t feel in a position to judge the action against Al-Shabaab yet because I don’t think we have all the facts. If you tell me the facts are that 150 Al-Shabaab militants were killed and no civilians died, that we’ve taken out 150 radical extremists, I’m leaning towards thinking that’s a good idea. If it turns out that the strategies backfire because we took out 10 Al-Shabaab militants, killed 100 civilians, all of whom have family, and they turn against the United States and Britain, and start signing up with Al-Shabaab, then we really screwed up.

Based on intel, we will decide, all of us collectively, whether the Al-Shabaab attack has advanced our global strategy. Have we advanced our global strategy, which is to defeat extremism wherever we find it? And, if we haven’t, if that operation has taken out 10 militants and killed 120 civilians and they all have families and Al-Shabaab starts to recruit more people, then we blew it, plain and simple.

It’s really about you assess the effect of the strike not based on one strike – it’s based on the long-term results. What’s the strategic objective and have we advanced our strategic objective? The grand strategic objective is to push back against extremism in all its forms and attempt to defeat it. That’s the only question.

Eye In The Sky

The moment in the film that sort of stuck with me the most, surprisingly, is the throwaway scene with the U.S. Secretary of State (played by Michael O’Keefe), the one where he’s so irritated that there’s even a discussion.

I think what’s important, and I know it’s a little tricky because the Americans do seem to be much more decisive than the Brits, but the reality is they are because they have a clearer system in place.

Whether that system is good or bad is very much being debated, as you know, but there is a list, the Tuesday list. Some call it Terror Tuesday, where on Tuesdays, generally, President Obama sits with his national security advisors, up to a hundred people, with some of them coming in on video conference and goes through the list of wanted extremists all over the world, who have we eliminated, who’s still on the list, who’s priority, and how are we doing.

And he signs off on that kill list. I don’t know that he personally refers to it as a kill list, but in the popular press it’s called the kill list. With that list, according to the military intelligence officers we spoke to, you don’t have to debate it every time you find one of these people. There’s a decision that’s been made. It applied to Anwar al-Awlaki in 2011, right? He moved up to the top of the list and our forces took him out.

The question that arises, which we don’t have time for, is it better for us to have eliminated him or has his death without a trial become a recruiting tool for extremists? That’s always going to be the question.

The British haven’t been at this quite as long and have a more touchy-feely approach. When we made the film, they hadn’t actually struck any of their own citizens. As you know, they killed two British citizens in Syria this past September and it caused a huge ruckus in the British Parliament.