Eye in the Sky

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Last week I had the pleasure of seeing the new movie starring Helen Mirren and the late great Alan Rickman, Eye in the Sky. I was simply floored. Not only is Eye in the Sky an example of film-making at its best, with intelligent pacing and stellar acting throughout, it is also one of the most sophisticated treatments that I have seen of the legal, policy and moral dilemmas that people who make targeting decisions are faced with. It even has words like necessity and proportionality in it, and generally used correctly at that! I could totally envisage a vigorous classroom discussion of the various issues raised after every ten minutes of the movie. I just couldn’t recommend it more for anyone even remotely interested in the legal and moral aspects of targeted killings by drones.  *MINOR SPOILERS FOLLOW*

The basic set up of the film is a drone strike that the military commander of a multinational operation (Mirren) wishes to pursue after the capture operation that was initially planned becomes infeasible. Assessing the feasibility of capture is itself a major point in the initial stages of the operation, with for example the issue of risk to one’s own soldiers, as well as bystanders, being expressly raised when the feasibility of the operation was being decided.

As the operation escalates from capture to killing, the film very cleverly turns some factual judgments that would normally be covered by a veil of uncertainty or the fog of war into clear-cut determinations – thus, for example, a small beetle-like surveillance drone allows the mission operators to directly observe what the terrorists are doing, and to assess the danger they pose to others. In this the film resembles trolley problems or ticking bomb scenarios – with the caveat that other key issues remain shrouded in uncertainty (e.g. the likely effects of the missile blast), and that at a key moment in the plot the fog of war reasserts itself. The ultimate decision that needed to be made was a proportionality one, and we could see laid bare all the difficulties with its consequentialist moral calculus. Perhaps most interestingly, we could see see how at one point the law ran out, and other constraining factors took over.

Another major thread is the multiplicity of actors who each had to make their own decision as to whether the missile should be fired or not – the gung ho commander (Mirren), her officers, her superior (Rickman), the US drone pilot, the military legal advisor, the UK Attorney General, and politicians at various levels. Each of these people had to decide – even if the decision was to pass the buck to someone else, which happens repeatedly – with the ultimate decision being on the pilots who have to fire the weapon, even if in the greater pecking order they have an obligation to obey the orders of their superiors. Finally, as the whole chain of events unfolds we can see the consequences of the various choices that these people had made, even if they did not intend them or could not predict them, which again reinforces the theme of decision-making under a cloud of uncertainty.

All in all, a simply fantastic film – go and see it now! Other thoughts most welcome in the comments.

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Max says

May 9, 2016

Dear Marko,

I too enjoyed the film, it's not often we get one that can so happily engage international law scholars! I think you have pointed out some very important points regarding the politics of the subject matter--the film massively underlines the fact that international law doesn't operate in a vacuum.

I used the film to launch my own blog on international law (and phd research), looking in detail at the legal aspects of the decision whether or not to strike; I would love to hear your thoughts if you have a moment and fancy a quick read (http://themaxbblog.blogspot.co.uk/2016/04/international-law-and-eye-in-sky-hasty.html). For those who haven't seen the film, this post CONTAINS FAR MORE SERIOUS SPOILERS!!

Thanks again,


Julia says

May 9, 2016


Lately, I have been struggling to find recent films which have sufficient legal content to be used in class, so thanks very much for your post, I will definitely add Eye in the Sky to my list!

Just a minor point, as far as I understand the UK does not have "one" Attorney General. Whilst the Attorney General for England and Wales is commonly referred to as the UK Attorney General, there is actually an Attorney General for Northern Ireland and an Advocate General for Scotland who deal with matters pertaining to devolved powers. (Though I suspect the subject of the film does not fall within those devolved powers).

Shiri Krebs says

May 11, 2016

I couldn't disagree more. Here's my take on it:

Aurel Sari says

May 15, 2016

I finally got to watch this film. I would not recommend it for teaching. It is a drama, heavy with artistic licence, and is likely to create many false impressions. My main concern in this respect is that the film portrays the process and most people involved as utterly unprofessional. The scenes involving the ALS officer were cringeworthy.

If you are looking for something to show to students, try "Drone" directed by Tonje Hessen Schei (but don't forget to add a pinch of salt or two).