If you missed Valley of Love at the French Film Festival, don’t fret. The director keeps threatening to unleash Depardieu and Huppert, and then resiles. It is a bit of a tease. If you missed Brooklyn, I wouldn’t worry either. It is a love story as pure as Romeo and Juliet, but the second half depends on your believing that it might end the same way. I couldn’t, and the result was pointless kitsch. The bright spot was Romeo – he looks like James Dean and Montgomery Clift combined, and he sounds like Sinatra. It is uncanny. He could be a star if they still make those kinds of movies.
Eye in the Sky is an altogether different film. It packs a wallop to watch and reflect on. This is a film about combating terrorism by the use of drones. The operation is controlled from England, by a colonel (Helen Mirren) who reports to a general (Alan Rickman) who in turn chairs a committee that contains two cabinet ministers and two staffers. They are assisted by American units in Las Vegas (the pilot and his assistant) and Hawaii (the computerised target identifiers). The target is on the ground in Nairobi and the mission is assisted by Nairobi troops and one very astute small vehicle camera operator who can get tiny bird or insect-like instruments to get close-ups of the target, even inside a house.
This is a military exercise led by the military, but, incongruously, subject to on the spot cabinet committee approval. However unlikely that plotline is in what is said to be an act of some kind of warfare, it is an ideal way for the plot to expose the moral, political, and legal issues. The drama is given teeth by a small girl being present close to the target and on any view within the likely range of ‘collateral damage’ if the pilot of the drone is instructed or authorised to strike.
Since the Reich, we have got used to the idea of people going to work each morning with murder in their briefcase. That sense is brought home here because we see the leading figures emerge from their daily lives before adopting the role of killers. For example, the general has to collect a doll for a child on his way to work, and a politician has to be interrupted on the loo because he is getting over food poisoning.
The drama brings home the difficulty faced by people having to accept responsibility for having blood on their own hands. We are told that the legal issues are determined by reference to ‘the terms of engagement’. Presumably these are the basis upon which the government of Kenya has invited the military of the UK and the US to conduct lethal operations in its territory.
The overriding moral issue is how anyone gets the right to kill people merely on the grounds of suspicion in something that is nothing like a real ‘war’. The drama is stark, and sometimes black, as people duck for cover and refer up. Lawyers will also recognise what happens when someone can’t get the advice they want on one set of instructions and therefore change the instructions. Some lawyers are better at playing that game than others. It is, after all, form of dishonesty. ‘If I can’t kick a goal there, I will move the goal posts.’ It might remind you of Groucho Marx: ‘You don’t like my principles – I will get some new principles.’ There are some quite revolting moments where people compute hypothetical death tolls by references to odds of probabilities – all of which may involve one kind of intellectual fraud, and another kind of moral bankruptcy.
You get the sense that the mission has to take place. Ultimately, I think most people in the West know that drone strikes are going on and that decisions to kill people are being made that would be horribly unlawful and utterly unthinkable if they were taken in respect of people of our skin colour and our citizenship in our country, but which we somehow tolerate taking place elsewhere. Most people will accept this, on the basis that they do not have to know or want to know exactly what is going on. This attitude still, I think persists, although people at large in the West no longer trust their governments as they used to, but we must still ask what is the difference between us and, say, a large part of the German nation during the period 1939 to 1945?
Certainly, while we put up with this kind of killing going on in our name, we can hardly regard ourselves as morally superior to Robespierre and the other terrorists who ruled France during the period known as ‘the Terror’. Contrary to received general opinion, the French terrorists did not kill people merely on suspicion – the Law of Suspects merely authorised the detention of people who were suspected of being inimical to the regime, and that kind of law is very common in a country facing a foreign threat as France was at that time. They may in fact have been executing people on suspicion, but they were not doing so under some legal process that permitted them to do that – and they at least put up some form of trial first.
There was no form of judicial intervention in this film at all; and the terrorists were exclusively terrorists operating in Kenya who did not appear to pose any threat to those nations who were engaging in the operation to kill terrorists. The moral issues are, therefore, to put it softly, serious. To what extent do we want to give our military or our government the power to kill people on the footing that the ends justify the means, when that maxim is the foundation of the political evil that underlies all forms of terrorism?
And a fond farewell to the late Alan Rickman. What a voice! What a lip-curl! He was a truly wonderful creator of character. He helped to make Barchester Chronicles the best thing on TV since Callan.