A joint Anglo-American military operation is about to take place. A terrorist group has gathered in a compound, in a suburb of Nairobi, Kenya. The plan is to capture and question the group. The targets are surveilled from on high with a sophisticated drone that has a missile payload on board. On the ground, there are agents with cameras and listening devices. This profusion of electronic eyes and ears on the Nairobi house helps to link together team leader Colonel Katherine Powell (Helen Mirren) in Surrey with a British government and military panel in London and to US Air Force drone pilots in Nevada. It is these last two, Watts (Aaron Paul) and Gershon (Phoebe Fox) who are charged with the actual responsibility for any kills that might result if an engagement takes place. If a missile is fired, then Watts will be the one to hit the button.
The operation looks set to change as a result of intelligence uncovered by one of the agents on the ground. Jama Farah (CAPTAIN PHILLIPS’ Barkad Abdi) uses some nifty snooping devices to uncover the unexpected range of weaponry inside the house. The terrorists have even greater lethal capacity than they had imagined. The international team considers whether the objective should now be firing the missile and killing the terrorists.
This begins a complex process of dealing with this question by “referring up” the chain of command. The civil, military, political and ethical points are argued in the United States, Britain and in Kenya by various individuals fighting for their competing agendas. If they attack the house now they have the element of surprise and will likely succeed in killing some significant terrorists. However, in doing so they will cause much collateral damage that will likely result in the deaths innocent civilians. Time is also a pressure because the terrorists are preparing to leave their compound.
The question at hand: How many people is it reasonable to accidentally kill now, in order to save the lives of potential terrorism victims later? And are you prepared to live with consequences?
South African filmmaker Gavin Hood (2013’s ENDER’S GAME) uses his home country to double for Kenya in this British thriller. The film has an international feel that reflects the cast and the choice of location. The audience is given a rare insight into the process of co-operation across borders in order to prosecute the War on Terror. Any idea of the drones providing detachment from the act of killing is soon lost. The film makes it clear that there are some circumstances where having a chain of command and numerous others to share responsibility will not absolve you of your ethical duties to others, nor your moral duty to yourself.
Hood’s film has some solid performances, including one of the late Alan Rickman’s last cinematic outings. It is a think piece with emotional weight. While the diplomats, soldiers and politicians argue on screen, we think about what we might do in the same position. What would we do if the responsibility were ours?