Interview: Gavin Hood of “Eye in the Sky”

Interview: Gavin Hood of “Eye in the Sky”

Posted on March 18, 2016 at 3:18 pm

Copyright Bleeker Street 2016
Copyright Bleeker Street 2016

Director Gavin Hood says that his new thriller about drone warfare is “the grown-up version” of his last film, “Ender’s Game.” The Orson Scott Card sci-fi story written in the 1970’s anticipated much of today’s technology, including drone-styled remote machines make it possible for us to get closer to the enemy for obtaining information and keep us farther from the weapons we deploy to defeat them. “This is the real world,” Hood said in an interview, “present time, no sci-fi.” He continued:

We are living in an interesting age where we are more connected than ever before and yet in our connectivity we are also physically disconnected almost more than ever before. So there is something strange about this new world where we can see what’s happening far, far away, we can even control weapons that are far, far away without being in the conflict zones ourselves and therefore we are not physically as a drone pilot, for example, risking our lives. And yet we are engaged in warfare and witnessing close-up, albeit through a lens, close-up, the body counts and the effects of warfare. And so psychologically this is a strange new world for pilots of these drones, a very strange world. As it can be for the military commanders running the operations from places like the joint headquarters. Do you know that all of these places in the film really exist? Everything you see in the film is a real place that really exists, run by real people. The US-based and geospatial unit in Hawaii which we called in the movie Image Analysis Unit with the permission of the Geo space guides because it just what Geo space means and what it basically means image analysis. They analyze imagery from different places in the world, not only face recognition, but that’s a teeny part of it. They analyze for example if they catch a piece of YouTube footage or something from some wanted person who posts it, where exactly it was filmed, where is that object in the background and they have all kind of sophisticated software to try and pinpoint where things are, what things are, they analyzed troop movements from satellite imagery, drone imagery, it’s basically a place to analyze imagery and it happens to be located in an Air Force base Hawaii. I guess if you’re analyzing in darkened places all the time it’s nice to get out into the sunshine.

And then the largest drone piloting base in is Creech Airport base outside of Las Vegas, mostly American pilots, there are those too from other parts of the world that fly out of that base Italians, British, French. And Joint headquarters in London is exactly what its name says but there are many joint headquarters for many operations. So there are military offices and personnel from many different nations working out of that area. The drones which I didn’t actually mention which fire on Somalia are mostly launched from a base in Djibouti where there are subcontractors working for American military, people who have been in the military are now civilians but working for the military.
So it gets really really complicated because the pilots in Creech don’t what they call launch or recover the drones. The drones are launched, made airborne out of Djibouti from ground control crews in Djibouti, they are re-weaponized in Djibouti, they are refueled in Djibouti and then when the plane comes back to land there’s a moment where the ground control people take over from the pilots in Creech and bring the planes in to land and that’s just one base. That’s a sort of East African base in which drones are launched. There are drone bases obviously in Afghanistan, Iraq, all over the world from which drones are launched and recovered but there can be drones from anywhere or pilots from anywhere, and it’s remote.

Copyright Bleeker Street 2016
Copyright Bleeker Street 2016

The movie shows us how different people look at the same set of facts but make different decisions and different assessments based on whether they were looking at military strategy, legal liability, political liability, or bureaucratic liability. When the military officer played by Alan Rickman argues that killing one little girl as collateral damage would be better than allowing the suicide bombers in the building to leave and kill hundreds of people, the politician responds that the key difference would be that it is us killing the little girl but the terrorists killing hundreds of civilians. Hood said that was his favorite moment in the film. “That moment, just when you think, come on people, we know what we’ve got to do here or if you don’t want to do it, and then suddenly comes an argument that spins you off into a totally different but absolutely critical direction. That is said by the Undersecretary of State for Africa named Angela and played by Monica Dolan, I hope playing along into this slight prejudice where you’re going to be ‘Oh, this is a woman, she’s going to be maternal and she’s going to not to want to strike the child,’ and then she comes out with the statement that says she would actually rather sacrifice 80 people at the hands of the terrorists in the local population that to have the local population turn against us because we killed one of their children.Now, you can play with the numbers. It is very important that when people say, ‘what would you do?’ You have to look at the facts. I think the script that I wrote is very humbling. We want to think that there is a policy for every situation and that’s that, but there just isn’t. There are strikes taking place every day in different parts of the world. There are strike taking place in defined conflict zones like Iraq and Afghanistan where we happen to find enemy within the geographic area and then there’s just more complicated questions such as where the enemy has moved into civilian neighborhood in possibly a friendly country whether it be Yemen or North Kenya and strikes are taking place and the question is what is the effect of that strike?

It’s very controversial as to whether the strikes that we made in Pakistan have actually helped us in terms of the overall strategy of winning the population over or whether they turned a lot of the population against us. People ask, ‘Do you think drones are good or bad?’ And that is too limited a question. The real question is: You have a new weapon, and every few years you get a new weapon. There was a time when we fought with spears and swords and then the longbow came along and there is writing from way back when about how the longbows are terrible weapons and horrible weapons and it shouldn’t be used to kill people from a distance. And then we had missiles. So the drone is simply a new weapon. The question is what does this weapon do well? What does it not do well? And when should it be used?

A lot of people say, ‘Well, the drone is so much more accurate.’ Well, first of all it’s not more accurate than a sniper bullet. We see that hellfire; it makes a big mess. So I defy anyone to say that it is somehow the most clean piece of technology that we have. The guillotine is cleaner — chop someone’s hands off, someone’s head off, no elaborate damage. The issue wasn’t what’s the weapon. The question was – Do you have the right person whose head we are chopping off? And what is the effect of chopping this head off and the people watching the beheading? Do they decide that we’re the good guys or not and that also it depends on the particular situation? So I think what Guy’s script does really well is present us with complex ethical, moral, legal, political questions and perhaps remind us not to be so adamant one way or the other about a particular approach. It shows us that we need genuine conversation about this new way of waging war.”

It is both reassuring and chilling that we see the people in the film applying very comprehensive mathematical formulas to weigh the risks and benefits of various strategic options. Hood said,

“You see a very American phenomenon in this formula with five different levels of acceptable ‘collateral damage.’ I don’t mean that in a cynical way. You’ve been doing this for longer than the British. So the British are embroiled in what we might call traditional legal discussion which by the way also applies to America in any war. Even war has laws. Once you’re in war, the rule of war requires that you use only the force that is necessary and proportional and reasonable to neutralize the threat. Even in war when faced with a threat of say three soldiers coming over the hills with rifle we cannot hit them with a nuclear bomb. That would be an excessive use of force and would make you guilty if you gave that order of a war crime.

So even though we’ve gone to war, there is a body of international law or the law of war that attempts to control us within reason and then the reason for those laws, despite what Mr. Trump, says is that it matters how we behave in terms of how we can hold others accountable. So if there is no laws of war there would be no Nuremberg trial. If soldiers did not have to make a judgments about whether the order they are being given is legal or not, we cannot hold anyone from Nazi Germany accountable because they were following orders. The character played by Aaron Paul pushes back and asked for an updated collateral damage estimate. And by the way that’s not us making up a piece of dialogue. That’s a direct quote from a drone pilot commander, a colonel, who said ‘I am the pilot in command responsible for releasing this weapon. I have the right to ask that the CDE be run again. I will not release my weapon until that happens.’

If a pilot believes that he’s been issued an illegal order he is allowed to push back. If he defies what turns out to be a legal order, he’ll be court martialed. So these pilots are in a very tricky situation of having to make a judgment. Now does every controversial moment get pushed back such as we have in the movie? No. Because if you’re doing a drone strike in a defined constricted zone like Iraq or Afghanistan there are already rules of engagement. You’re not going all the way up the chain to the British Foreign Secretary.

But if you are doing something such as happened in the film where you’re targeting in a friendly country in a civilian neighborhood, you have big political ramifications. And so I want to say to my audience: this is 100 percent accurate but don’t think that every drone strike involves this kind of legal and moral complexity. Some do, some more, some less and depending on the degree of collateral damage people have to go higher and higher.”

Hood spoke very movingly about his chance to work with the late Alan Rickman.

I don’t know that he knew that he was sick when we were working but he was ill. I think we were very fortunate to get Alan in this film because the role of a general usually is played by somebody in a very simplistic, stereotypical way. What Alan brings to the role is a fully rounded, fascinating, intriguing and charming human being who is highly intelligent, because he was as a person. I wish he was here to talk to you because he spoke so eloquently about this subject. He was so well read and interested and he said he signed on because he loved the story and he literally said, ‘Gavin I just hope I don’t get in the way.’ He brings a comedy in his ability to be both absolutely mostly truthful and also find humor at moments when the audience needs to release tension and I think he’s enriched the film enormously and I miss him, and I wish he could be here to talk to you.

He said the wanted “the audience is in a position of jury, not being preached to but being asked to do think for themselves. So I hope we’ve given them a thriller with multiple points of view in the end let them have a good conversation. We don’t have the answers but I think it’s great for people to think and talk about these questions because it is where we’re going in terms of modern world.”

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Eye in the Sky

Eye in the Sky

Posted on March 10, 2016 at 5:43 pm

Lowest Recommended Age: High School
MPAA Rating: Rated R for some violent images and language
Profanity: Very strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: None
Violence/ Scariness: Military violence including terrorism, bombs, explosions, characters injured and killed, some disturbing images
Diversity Issues: Diverse characters
Date Released to Theaters: March 11, 2016
Date Released to DVD: June 27, 2016 ASIN: B01CUMHBJS
Copyright Bleeker Street 2016
Copyright Bleeker Street 2016

“Eye in the Sky” is a rare thriller that grips the mind and heart equally. Drones take our military closer than we have ever been before to the people and the activities of the enemy as they remove us further than we have ever been before from the visceral reality of the actions we take based on what we have learned. This film takes us inside the tactical, political, legal, and moral choices faced by the international governments and military in combating terrorism. Director Gavin Hood and screenwriter Guy Hibbert show us the stakes rising and the options shrinking with each passing second, so we in the audience must constantly ask ourselves not just what the characters should do but what we would do.

Colonel Katherine Powell of the British Army (Helen Mirren) is awakened by her phone. Intelligence received via drone indicates that three from the top ten international most wanted list of terrorists may possibly be together at a home in Kenya. The British and the US are especially interested in one couple they have been trying to find for six years. The wife is British and the husband is American. Both countries want them captured and tried at home.

If her team can positively identify the couple and the man they are meeting with, the mission will turn from reconnaissance to capture. But then the drone camera reveals that the danger is far more dire and imminent than they thought. The house is not just a meeting place. They are arming suicide bombers, taping their last statements, and presumably getting ready to send them into densely populated areas for maximum carnage. The people working on this are all over the world, with a military unit in Hawaii that analyzes images from a drone in Kenya, flown by a pilot in Las Vegas, commanded by military personnel in England, under the direction of elected officials who are both away from their countries on business.

The military has the capacity to prevent the suicide bombers from inflicting damage on civilians by blowing them up before they leave. But they are in the middle of a residential area. Is this warfare or an execution? Does it matter that two of the targets are British and US citizens? Does it matter that a little girl is selling bread just outside the house?

The international scope of the mission and the bureaucratic/political decision-making is fascinating. Information inside the house comes from a tiny mini-drone that looks like an insect, flown into the house by an operative nearby who is pretending to be both selling buckets in the open market and playing a video game on a phone. The operative is played by “Captain Phillips” star Barkhad Abdi, a very different and equally impressive performance of great intelligence and thoughtfulness. Information from the outside, including the biometric identification of the suspected terrorists, comes from drones monitored by Americans half a world away. Sitting at screens are Aaron Paul and Phoebe Fox as US military who are diligent and dedicated but not really prepared to blow up the people they’ve been spying on, especially that little girl.

There is a literal ticking time bomb in that house. We can see it. What should we do about it? Should we risk that child’s life to keep the suicide bombers from taking more lives? For the military, including Colonel Powell and her boss, Lieutenant General Frank Benson (the late Alan Rickman, making us miss him even more sharply), it is a mathematical calculus; not simple, but clear. They know they must consult the lawyers, who remind them of the criteria, almost a formula, they are required to apply. But the bureaucrats get nervous, and bump it up to the politicians. Calls must be made all over the world as the officials are participating in various diplomatic events; at one point it is even suggested that the question be put to the President of the United States.

But the film shows us that these questions have already been asked and answered. There is a calculus that is reassuringly quantitative and comprehensive but disturbingly clinical. As we see the people all over the world watching the people inside the house, trying to figure out how to apply those algorithms expressed in acronyms and percentages, the film forces us along with the characters to try to apply formulas to a world that will always confound them.

Parents should know that this movie features military violence including drones, guns, explosions, terrorism, suicide bombers, with some grisly and disturbing images, and very strong language. An extended part of the film focuses on potential “collateral damage” to civilians, including a child, from military action.

Family discussion: How would you improve the decision that was ultimately made? How would you improve the process for making it? Who should decide?

If you like this, try: the documentary “Drone”

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Trailer: Helen Mirren Stars in “Eye in the Sky”

Posted on January 7, 2016 at 8:00 am

Helen Mirren and Aaron Paul star in “Eye in the Sky,” a military thriller about using drones for recon and weapons. Do you drop a bomb on a terrorist if there is a child playing nearby?

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