While drone warfare may play a central role in the contemporary military landscape, it’s proved remarkably resistant to representation within anything resembling a classical cinematic format. In part, that’s because drone warfare operates at speeds and across distances that seem to defy the classical regulation of space and time, driven by digital networks that are too complex to be visualised in any complete or systematic way. More literally, however, drone warfare is one of the sites at which post-human technologies, and post-human sensibilities, are starting to well and truly supersede what was once a human, embodied, corporeal field. As reports and testimonies from drone operators attest, this is a field of warfare that almost entirely subsumes conscious agency into stimulus-response, pattern recognition and reflex management. Indeed, as Mark B.N. Hansen points out in Feed Forward, drone technology is rapidly progressing to the point at which the human subject will be short-circuited once their ability to identify potential targets has been internalised, co-opted and processed by neural technology in the service of the state.
From that perspective, there are three main ways that a film about drone warfare can unfold. Firstly, it can concede the limitations of its own cinematic optic; secondly, it can dwell on the procedure, protocol and bureaucracy of drone warfare in ways that denude it as a cinematic spectacle, if not exactly rupturing the cinematic optic itself; and, finally, it can try to convince us that a humanist vocabulary is still adequate to this most post-human of military technologies. In many ways, Eye in the Sky takes the third option, offering up a film that is almost absurdly discorrelated from the actual practice and procedure of drone warfare, revolving around the discovery by British intelligence that a cell of terrorists – including a British citizen who has been radicalised – have congregated in a small house in Nairobi and are preparing for an attack in the next couple of hours.
What ensues plays out in two quite distinct registers, with the more conventional part of the film focusing on the bureaucratic communication amongst a number of parties with a vested interest in taking down the Nairobi cell: the British military presence in Nairobi, led by Colonel Katherine Powell (Helen Mirren); the British military-political apparatus back in London, which includes Lieutenant General Frank Benson (Alan Rickman) and government lawyer Brian Woodale (Jeremy Northam); the drone pilot team operating out of America, led by 2nd Lieutenant Steve Watts (Aaron Paul); and, of course, the Kenyan military, specifically Jama Farah (Barkhad Abdi), the undercover agent responsible for setting some of the smaller drones in position in the first place. Over a couple of hours, these different players have to decide whether or not to land a bomb on the house, despite the significant amount of projected collateral damage, including a little girl who is selling bread in the militarised zone outside.
From the very outset, there’s something unrealistic and nostalgic about the sheer amount of time and effort that is expended on this one decision, since by most accounts the procedures attendant upon drone warfare tend to be impersonal, bureaucratic and divested from any sense of individual agency or accountability. By contrast, here we’re subjected to what increasingly feel like a series of lugubrious, hysterical philosophical disquisitions, although to its credit the film also seems to acknowledge the absurdity of this scenario, frequently bordering on something like bureaucratic farce, even if it can’t ever quite rid itself of this sentimental fantasy either. In that sense, this part of the film could almost be a play, and certainly unfolds in terms of highly ceremonial, theatrical forms of address and debate, which is perhaps why it is only Alan Rickman who really feels naturalistic, since one of his great talents as an actor, from his very earliest appearances in The Barchester Chronicles, was his ability to fuse theatrical expostulation with a beautifully languorous cinematic presence. As his last screen appearance – and a posthumous appearance at that – his presence and dignity prevents the film’s sentimentality ever feeling too cheap or too trite.
Nevertheless, this more stagebound part of the film does a very good job of capturing the sheer dispersal of agency when it comes to drone warfare, even or especially as the dialogue becomes ever more hysterically intent on reclaiming a quite outdated, old-fashioned, ultra-humanist agency that itself frequently verges on parody. Given the fludity and diffuseness of post-classical cinema, ensemble dramas have come to feel less emphatic or distinctive, but this is very much an ensemble cast in the old-fashioned mode, with each character relegated to their own distinct cube of space and most of the main players never meeting, or even seeing each other, in real life. Once again, there is a sense of absurdity that runs through all this, not least because Monica Dolan is included at a pivotal node in the communications, recalling her role in W1A which often satirises precisely the bureaucratically produced sentimentality on display here. As with W1A, too, which takes place in and around the BBC, the film feels haunted by an older generation of procedural parody, with distinct traces of Yes Minister, in particular, creeping in around the edges: “There is no law covering a situation quite like this!”
At the same time, that hysteria can quickly grow grating, and what ultimately makes this part of the film compelling is the way in which it plays off against the other strand, which takes place in and around the Nairobi compound and tends to be shot through drone cameras, replacing the theatrically blocked tableaux of the Western world with a highly mobile, imperfect perceptual lens. On its own, the preoccupation with rules of engagement and chain of command – and the more general procedural uncertainty around strike protocol – might seem like a fairly mild satire, or a simplistic moral exercise. However, its anxieties become considerably more pronounced when set against these sequences, especially when its theatrical mode of address is silenced by the drone camera, attached to an electronic insect, that Jama Farah manages to remote control into the compound and up onto a rafter, where it perches for the entirety of the film, as the various military and political stakeholders become more and more fixated upon its footage.
What unfolds on this tiny insectcam is very different from the procedural farce of the more classically filmed segments. In place of their more familiar and even comforting perceptual lens, we’re presented with something akin to a found footage film depicting the last couple of hours before a terrorist attack squad disperse for their destination. Logistically, there’s a certain fascination to seeing how that process unfolds, from the preparation of the vests to the recording of the video, while there’s also a certain fantasy here of being able to contain a terrorist attack at its very inception by way of a genuinely pre-emptive strike. Subtending it all, however, is a ghostly, chilling awareness that terrorist attacks can’t, by definition, be pre-empted, not merely because they occur in such covert circumstances, but because they’re suffused with a sense of conviction, purpose and agency that is utterly inconceivable within the bureaucratic miasma that is erected to forestall them.
While the depictions of drone warfare may not be procedurally accurate, then, there is a certain affective accuracy in the way in which the endless bureaucratic discussions end up serving much the same purpose as the impersonal, depersonalised routines of, say, Andrew Niccol’s Good Kill; namely, to reiterate the unimaginable agency and conviction of suicide bombers in the very final stages of preparation. In many ways, that agency becomes something of a sublime horizon within the film, incapable of being properly or systematically visualised, and perfectly suited to the digital horror overtone of the obscured, distorted and temperamental insectcam. While terrorist agency may be mediated, it cannot be properly grasped, and so there is something peculiarly chilling about the depiction of the terrorists filming their video, as the eerie mediation of a confessional recording is itself placed at a second remove. Similarly, there is also a certain voyeuristic fascination in watching the British citizen who has been radicalised as she plays her part in the preparations, since the film yearns to radicalise itself enough to follow and forestall her, even as it is committed to the most old-fashioned and sentimental of cinematic vocabularies to express that yearning.
In many ways, then, Eye in the Sky captures something peculiarly hauntological about the spectacle, procedure and sheer existence of drone warfare. In Ghosts of My Life, Mark Fisher defines hauntology as a state of being preoccupied by lost futures, and while this experience is often understood in terms of large time frames, there is also a sense here that every drone strike is in some sense haunted by the futures that have been forestalled, or are about to be forestalled, even as it operates in the name of a putative future that only emerges in aggregate anyway. Because each quantum of drone hauntology is beyond the purview of individual perception, however, Eye in the Sky can only build an affectively hauntological narrative by betraying what it is about drone warfare that makes it hauntological in the first place. Drone warfare, one might say, doesn’t merely forestall possible futures but the possibility of the future, forestalling it with every infinitesimal decision onto to revive and then forestall it a microsecond later. In its attempt to capture that in a classical cinematic narrative, then, Eye in the Sky is doomed to fail: desperate to be a film “about” being haunted, it simply is haunted, which is perhaps why it plays like desperate and anxious propaganda, betraying its deepest fears with its most emphatic rhetorical flourishes.