Rated R. Running time: 1 hour 42 min.
Our content ratings: Violence 4; Language 2; Sex/Nudity 0.
Our star rating: (1-5): 4.5
Do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul; rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell. Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? Yet not one of them will fall to the ground apart from your Father. And even the hairs of your head are all counted.
In war, truth is the first casualty.
A few hundred years ago the title of director Gavin Hood and writer Guy Hibbert’s film would have referred to God. Virtually everyone in Europe and America believed the Creator to be “up there” watching over everyone—hence the beloved song “His Eye Is On the Sparrow,” based on the above passage of Matthew. Not so today when the world, as theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer put it in his Letters From Prison, “has come of age.” Thanks to sophisticated technology, today humans are the ones looking through the eye in the sky, and humans also are the ones possessed with the power of life or death over those upon whom they spy.
This fascinating film that ranges over three continents raises complex ethical issues in a non-sensational way, moving far beyond the comparatively simple American Sniper in which killing unsuspecting people from a distance was justified because they were vicious terrorists. It is different too from the film that it most resembles, Good Kill, in that it does not delve into the effects of killing by drones upon those who press the trigger from thousands of miles away. Hood and Hibbert have stripped away most of the personal details of the British and American officers, politicians, and soldier-technicians to focus upon the moment when the decision must be made to pull or not pull the trigger that will lead to the death of some bad guys and at least one little girl.
After an opening scene in which a nine-year Nigerian girl named Alia (Aisha Takow) shows off her newly decorated hula hoop to her adoring father, the film takes us to a British command center in southern England where Colonel Katherine Powell (Hellen Mirren) watches a screen showing from high above some vans moving along a Nairobi street. She is in command of a team of Kenyan troops stationed in the distant Nairobi warehouse poised to capture a Somalian terrorist and his British wife Susan Helen Danford (Lex King), members of Al-Shabaab, a Somali jihadist group. This is the culmination of a six year search by a multinational team headed by the Colonel, so she is understandably on edge to prosecute the mission successfully. They are able to follow the vehicles transporting the militants to a house, thanks to the American drone with its powerful camera hovering high above the city. They also have perched on the wall of the compound a small mechanical bird equipped with a camera that transmits pictures of the passengers as they emerge from the vans. Over in a US base in Pearl Harbor a female technician is using facial ID technology to identify the woman as the one the British are seeking. However, the subject’s face is obscured by her headscarf, so the certainty necessary to launch the operation is still elusive. Both she and her husband are high on the Brits’ kill list because they were part of the terrorist group that murdered so many civilians in a shopping-mall bombing in Nairobi.
The Colonel asks the Kenyan in charge of the ground operation Major Moses Owiti (Vusi Kunene) to obtain pictures from inside the building. We can see that the Major is reluctant to send one of his men into the terrorist controlled section of the city, but he complies by sending his secret operative Jama Farrah (Barkhad Abdi). Equipped with a small control device that looks like a video game, he is able to maneuver a tiny beetle-shaped drone, called a “MAV” (Micro Aerial Vehicle), to fly into the house and position it so that the husband and wife can be seen conferring with two other terrorists. With the Brit’s headscarf now removed, the far away American technician is able to ID the woman as the person for whom they have been searching. However, when the group moves to another room the drone’s camera reveals that two young men, one a U.S. citizen just arrived in Nairobi, are being equipped with bomb vests for a suicide mission. This, for the Colonel, changes the capture mission to a kill one, and so she notifies her superior Lt. General Frank Benson (Alan Rickman). He agrees, especially when it becomes evident that the suicide bombers will be leaving the house soon on their murderous mission.
However Benson is in a Whitehall room with a group of politicians and advisers who have been invited to witness the capture. Unlike the officer, who would prefer that civilians would leave the military alone in their pursuit of terrorists, these people see a larger picture. They are concerned with what the military euphemistically call collateral damage.” It is clear that the little girl seated at a table right outside the terrorists’ compound where she is selling her mother’s bread would probably be killed. The results of that, once word got out about her death, raises both ethical and public relation questions. They are not at all certain that the mision now should be one to kill.
To drive this home the filmmakers intercut numerous scenes of young Alia throughout the film. We see how proud her bicycle repairman father is of her, and how fearful he is when a terrorist customer criticizes her for what he regards as her corrupt practice of playing with a hula hoop. The father, barely able to convince the accuser not to take her away, firmly tells her never to play with the toy when customers are present. We see her numerous other times walking from her house and taking the loaves of bread, laying them on the table, and negotiating their sale with customers.
The men and the woman in the Whitehall room decide to defer to higher ups, and eventually this passing the buck even involves both a British and an American cabinet member. The filmmakers manage to inject a rare note of humor into this sequence. The British cabinet minister, at an arms show in Singapore, has come down with food poisoning, and so takes the urgent call from London while seated on a toilet. When he learns that one of the suicide bombers is a U.S. citizen, he demands that the Americans approve the use of a missile before agreeing himself. The U.S. Secretary of State, reached in China where he is playing ping pong (shades of the Nixon era!), agrees to the strike.
All this time Colonel Powell is quietly fuming, anxious that they strike before the suicide bombers can leave the house and go their separate ways. Experts have estimated that at least 80 more civilians will be killed if they do not send the hellfire missile at the house. At this point the junior officer, who will actually fire the missile, Air Force Lieutenant Steve Watts (Aaron Paul) and his partner Carrie Gershon (Phoebe Fox) 9000 miles away from Nairobi in a Las Vegas drone-piloting facility who brings the process to a momentary halt. He also has been watching little Alia selling her bread on the other side of the wall encircling the terrorists’ house. Under the military code he has the right to question an order to kill, and he does. Up to now he has flown drones for reconnaissance. This is very different. Entailing the taking of an innocent life. This sends the various Brits into a tizzy, with Col. Powell dealing with the Kenyan Major Owiti about recalculating the odds of Alia’s possible injury or death by shifting slightly the missile’s point of impact. They also order their local drone operative-spy Jama Farrah to try to lure Alia away. The resourceful man recruits a boy to go and buy all of her bread—and warns him to run back to him right away. The observers breathe a huge sigh of relief when they watch the boy buy Alia’s entire stock. But in a few moments their sense of celebration turns to horror. The girl is back with a fresh supply of bread!
How all this plays out makes for suspenseful viewing. It displays well the various views on what to do. The military has always stressed that it is often necessary to sacrifice the few for the good of the many, and for this both Colonel Powell and Lt. Colonel Benson strongly argue. Major Owiti seems less sure but is willing to follow orders, even in the final analysis if it means fudging a bit on the facts. The civilians are a varied lot, some as concerned for the repercussions on their careers and reputations as much as for the ethics of what they are being asked to approve.
I was impressed by the gulf between the terrorists and the far-flung crew deciding their fate. As far as we know the two fanatics being fitted with the vests loaded with explosives had no qualms about killing people they did not know, including children. (For a film about two brothers considering becoming suicide bombers see Paradise Now.) Yet here was a group of highly educated men and women fretting over the possible death of one child. Of course, while thinking of this, we must be careful that we not tar all Muslims with their brutal fanaticism.
The filmmakers leave it to us to choose who is right and who is wrong—or if, perhaps, anybody can be right in the new form of warfare that has evolved, one so similar to the violent computer games that our children love to play that we are approaching the time when some might not be able to tell the difference. Lt. Steve Watts and his partner Carrie Gershon still can, and we wonder if they will wind up in as sad a condition as the conscience-stricken drone pilot Thomas Egan in Good Kill. Our technology has changed the figurative face of warfare, but as we see at the end, the literal face of warfare remains the same, regardless of the means of killing.
For preachers/teachers: This might be a good film to use in conjunction with Jesus’ concern for the welfare of children. There is also the ironic little detail about two daughters, one in London and the other in Kenya. Alan Rickman’s General Frank Benson has been shopping for a doll for his daughter, and when he learns he has bought the wrong model, sends an aide out to obtain the right one. Then he enters the room where he will advocate the strike that will probably result in the death of the little daughter in Kenya.
This review with a set of discussion questions will be in the May issue of VP.