An out-of-control trolley is hurtling down a railway track, heading for a group of five oblivious children who are playing on the track. The children don’t have the time to escape before the trolley reaches them. They are doomed, unless someone diverts the trolley. You happen to be watching from afar, standing next to a lever. If you pull this lever, the trolley will be redirected to an adjoining track, and the five children will be saved. The catch of course, is that a single child is playing on the adjoining track, and she will be killed if you pull the lever and send the trolley her way. What would you do? Do you choose not to intervene, and allow five children to die, knowing you could have saved them? Or do you pull the lever, sacrificing one child to save five? Are you morally compelled to act one way or another?
The ‘trolley problem’ will be familiar to anyone who has attended an ethics class. But while it will remain nothing more than a fascinating thought experiment for most of us, leaders who venture into politics and warfare have to make similarly wrenching decisions on a frequent basis. The superb new British thriller, Eye in the Sky, takes us through the moral agony of one such decision.
The United Kingdom is working with the government of Kenya to combat a notorious East African terrorist group. Intelligence reports suggest that the group is holding a meeting of some kind at a house in suburban Nairobi. It soon becomes apparent that the meeting is being attended by some of East Africa’s most wanted terrorists. Worse: they seem to be gearing up for a major public attack that could kill scores of civilians. British forces must now decide whether to launch a pre-emptive assault on the house where the terrorists are meeting. This would undoubtedly kill them and thwart the suicide mission they were planning. But there is sure to be collateral damage from the strike. Innocent people will die, although not as many as would perish if the terrorists are allowed to proceed. What would you do? Would you pull the lever and divert the trolley?
All this is taking place in 2015, which means that the war plays out more in conference rooms than it does on battlefields. The UK does not need forces on the ground to swarm the house and kill the terrorists – all they need is a drone operator working out of Las Vegas – an eye in the sky. Say the word, and the eye will flash. While the action is easy enough, the decision to act is anything but. Before the terrorists can be defeated, the British bureaucracy must be conquered. There are a dizzying number of government officials who must sign off on a strike, each bringing their own opinions and agendas to the decision. An American citizen is involved, so the United States must give the go-ahead as well. The film, in essence, is a debate between these stakeholders on the trolley problem, with the highest stakes at play. It is a first-class thriller, but it would work just as well as a case study in decision making and organizational behaviour. What is remarkable about Eye in the Sky is that it refuses to cast its politicians as callous warmongers, its military officials as black-and-white hardliners or its soldiers as mindless droids. In this movie, they are all nuanced, thinking people who are acting out of some sense of integrity. Everybody is acutely aware of the weight and consequence of their actions.
The actors that have been assembled for this film are world class. Helen Mirren commands attention as the no-nonsense British colonel who urgently advocates immediate and decisive action against the terrorists. As the intermediary between Helen Mirren’s character and the British government officials, the late Alan Rickman plays delicious exasperation as only Alan Rickman can. Barkhad Abdi of Captain Phillips fame is wonderful in an important role. And if you’re looking to cast the role of a blue-eyed boy struggling with his conscience, why you’d choose anyone other than the brilliant Aaron Paul is beyond me. The supporting cast is excellent as well. (Game of Thrones fans will spot a familiar face)
Before this film, director Gavin Hood was perhaps most widely known for making 2009’s X-Men Origins: Wolverine. That remains one of the only movies that I’ve slept through in a theater. A few weeks ago, Ryan Reynolds recovered in style from that disaster, and now Hood has. I’ve never been more awake than I was during Eye in the Sky.