One of the bonuses of international air travel, especially if you have a busy life, is the option of seeing movies you normally wouldn’t get around to watching. Sometimes the experience is one you’d rather have gone with out. Other times, you find a surprising gem.
Eye in the Sky, starring Helen Mirren as a tough-minded colonel hunting US- and British-born Muslim terrorists in Nairobi, and the sadly late Alan Rickman playing, well, Alan Rickman in lieutenant general garb, is one of the gems.
With the quality of movies these days, I expected at best a cartoonish “us versus them” movie or at worst another “it’s all the West’s fault, who are all a bunch of jerks” movie. But no. No sympathy is given to the terrorists, but the local people they live and hide among are portrayed as sympathetic people living their lives as best they can. The people hunting the terrorists are portrayed as people with a moral compass, entirely willing to kill terrorists but torn by moral dilemmas when innocent people get caught in the radius of destruction. The politicians are an interesting mix of craven buck-passers and ones with a clearer-eyed vision (“I don’t care if they’re US citizens – they gave that up when they joined the terrorists”, to paraphrase).
The best part of the movie is the “trolley dilemma” that is central to the drama of the plot. (The Trolley Dilemma is a moral dilemma where you have to choose between letting a runaway trolley continue on its course and kill some people, or switch its track so it kills fewer, different people). Normally I find trolley dilemmas unrealistic — as when, in real life, is it ever going to happen to you and why? But this movie shows how it can happen — in war. In addition to the random chance of people maybe walking by when the missile hits the terrorists’ house, there is a young girl actually sitting outside the compound selling bread, whose chances of survival are slim. But against that, if nothing is done, two suicide bombers are about to leave, and instead of one death there will be dozens, probably including many other children. So do you attack, knowing that one girl will probably die; or save her, with your inaction enabling many more deaths? Do you accept the blame and criticism for killing her? Or defect the blame and criticism to the terrorists you could have stopped?
Eye in the Sky does a good job on this, maintaining the suspense all the way through.
Does this movie answer the trolley problem? There are no good answers, only better or worse ones, and it answers this version the way I would. Are politicians really that craven? Surely many are. Are the military, both the leaders calling the shots and the men and women doing the shooting, as concerned with the lives they are affecting as portrayed in this movie? I hope so.