Of trolleys and hellfire: The opening-night film at GIFF explores drone strikes from all sides.

click to enlarge An unmanned drone. - U.S. Air Force photo/Lt Col Leslie Pratt/Wikimedia Commons
U.S. Air Force photo/Lt Col Leslie Pratt/Wikimedia Commons
An unmanned drone.

The trolley problem is a scenario in which you have the chance to save many lives by causing one death.

A hypothetical moral quandary, it first presents this question: Would you pull a lever to divert a trolley on course to hit five people, if the track to which you divert it would kill one person? Then there’s this: Would you prevent a train from hitting five people by pushing a large person who is standing next to you into its direct path?

According to multiple studies, people would agree to carry out the former, but not the latter.


Director Gavin Hood
said his new film, Eye in the Sky, is something of a real-world version of that scenario. The film, with screenplay by Guy Hibbert, opens the 10th annual Gasparilla International Film Festival at Tampa Theatre on Wednesday, March 30. It offers a riveting look into the moral dilemma of using unmanned drones to kill what officials believe are known terrorists while facing the risk of hurting or killing nearby civilians.

click to enlarge SHAPING THE DILEMMA: Director Gavin Hood with actors Phoebe Fox and Aaron Paul. - Keith Bernstein/Bleecker Street
Keith Bernstein/Bleecker Street
SHAPING THE DILEMMA: Director Gavin Hood with actors Phoebe Fox and Aaron Paul.
The film is set in multiple locales: in the U.K. where military honchos played by Helen Mirren and Alan Rickman (in one of his final performances) debate what to do; at a U.S. Air Force base in Nevada, where a lieutenant played by Aaron Paul remotely pilots a drone carrying two Hellfire missiles; and a suburb of Nairobi, Kenya, where a team of al-Shabaab operatives assembles what appears to be the makings of a suicide bombing as a little girl sells loaves of bread nearby.

The question that looms heavily: Is potential loss of one life worth the hypothetical preservation of perhaps dozens of lives? Ultimately, the film wants you take in all aspects and decide for yourself.

“The facts matter,” said Hood, whose film Tsotsi won the 2006 Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film. “You really have to examine the problem from as many sides as possible, and so in our film, as the film progresses, the audience learns more and more of what’s happening and is presented with arguments by characters who come at the problem from very different positions. Some are soldiers. Some are politicians. We also get to know the innocent bystander. So as you get to a bigger and bigger picture, does your view change?”

Rather than get preachy about one side of the issue or another (an easy thing to do on such a sensitive issue), Hood said, the film sets out to give viewers a well-rounded (and compelling) look at modern-day warfare: The incredibly likable child (and her loving parents) who gets stuck in the crosshairs gets as much of a storyline as the characters you meet in London and Nevada.

“The film is really a thought experiment in the way that the trolley problem is a thought experiment,” Hood said. “Will you take one or more innocent lives in the hope of saving more lives?”

In recent years, use of drones for both surveillance and hitting targets has been on the rise, the thought being that using unmanned vehicles keeps American soldiers out of harm’s way in their effort to root out terrorists. The U.S. Special Operations Command conducts procurement, research and development on drones out of Tampa’s MacDill Air Force Base.

Drones are used in countries with which we’re essentially at war — Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria — but also in friendly countries where the U.S. and its allies are targeting terrorist networks in countries such as Libya, Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia, where a recent strike took out some 150 people.

Many officials will tell you they’re crucial.

“They’re absolutely vital when it comes to our national security,” said U.S. Congresswoman Kathy Castor (D—Tampa). “They’re absolutely vital. As long as the drones, in other countries, are used pursuant to the principles of Special Operations, the CIA, as long as they use that legal framework, I think it’s a necessary tool in the arsenal. If you find that that’s abused in any way, people must be held accountable.”

While they essentially eliminate risk for American soldiers, there’s always the risk of collateral damage as well as cases of mistaken identity that turn deadly. A drone strike on an Islamic State training camp in Libya last month inadvertently took out two Serbian hostages who were being held there. In such cases, anti-drone activists argue, the strikes can create more terrorists.

“That’s the rub, right? The problem is, how can you be sure that civilian casualties or other collateral damage isn’t inflicted during one of these strikes?” asked Ralph Clem, a retired U.S. Air Force General and professor emeritus at Florida International University.

“And the answer is, you can’t.”

Yet the same can be said for anything when it comes to war.

“That’s a dilemma that’s been in existence before drones and technology that allows you to surveil an area,” Castor said.

click to enlarge Hood and Mirren on set. - Keith Bernstein/Bleecker Street
Keith Bernstein/Bleecker Street
Hood and Mirren on set.

The surveillance technology employed
in the film is astonishing: cameras the size and likeness of hummingbirds and beetles fly around to identify terror suspects, while an overhead drone plane gets accurate reads on who is doing what, where.

The ability to have such an accurate picture of what’s happening down on the ground removes what is a common concern among critics of the use of drone strikes: that you can’t always have 100 percent certainty that the right people are being targeted.

While the ability to gather such accurate surveillance might not be all the way there yet in reality, for the film, such capabilities help to shift the focus to the moral question of whether to knowingly put one innocent life at risk in order to take out a handful of lives (including that of a British citizen) that appear to be about to take out many more, possibly 80.

“It’s still a bomb. It still sends bricks and mortar flying, as you will see in the film. The idea that it’s so precise that it won’t cause collateral damage, it’s just not true,” Hood said. “There is going to be collateral damage. Do you take the shot?”

There’s also the question of use of such force in a country with which the U.S. is not at war when extremists wrest control of an area from local police and military powers.

“In our film we’re in a friendly country in a zone that has been taken over by extremists,” Hood said. “Meaning the Kenyan police force and military who are in the film fear that going into that neighborhood would trigger a real ground war and many lives would be lost. Is it better to lose one innocent life if that’s the situation by using a Hellfire missile?”

Drones, Clem said, were never intended to be instruments of war beyond the scope of surveillance.

“One interesting aspect about this that I don’t think people are aware of, or is very rarely mentioned, is the fact that it was never the purpose… to use it as a weapon,” he said. “I can tell you that authoritatively… The idea was that these little tiny unmanned aircraft, with Predator being the most famous one, would fly around and would transmit back either photos or video of places that the military or whoever was interested in. And the idea of weaponizing that came later. And it evolved through kind of a simple process.”

First the vehicles simply used imagery, then were outfitted with GPS technology to give an accurate read on the location of said imagery. Then, Clem said, came the bombs.

“Once you figured out how to put the missile on the drone, well, the rest is history,” he said.

Yet, he said, while this capability was being rapidly developed, the legal framework to help guide its use has been lagging.

“Once you have this kind of capability, then you enter into this kind of murky realm… and that is the realm of, is it OK to do this, is it legal to do this, is it moral to do it? I think to everyone’s surprise the president and his people embraced it,” Clem said.

There’s also a question of whether it’s right to engage in battle when only one of the warring parties is in harm’s way.

“This is arguably the first time that in a war situation that people on one side are at risk and people on the other side are not,” Clem said. “In kind of a weird way, it seems to kind of balance things out; that there’s a cost attached, a human cost attached, to attacking another person, another target another ship, another city. That’s not the case here. The only threat to the operators of these weaponized weaponry is that they might get into an auto accident on the way home.”

Which leads to another question, at least if you’re the ones being attacked in this way:

“Does that give the other side the right to attack us in unconventional ways? That’s where that leads to next. Does that say that Al Qaeda or ISIS or some other horrific group like that can claim to be on the same moral ground we are?” Clem said. “This is called asymmetric warfare.”

With terror attacks occurring in recent months in Western locales like Paris, California and Brussels, the question arises whether such surveillance and targeted action could be used in Western countries, including the U.S. Clem said there could be potential for that, given that the U.S. has already shown the will to blow up its own people in events like the standoff in Waco, Texas 23 years ago. Had there been knowledge of the San Bernardino couple’s intent to go on a shooting spree, could the U.S. have justifiably used a similar measure to take them out before they embarked on the attack?

“Is there a difference between killing somebody by having the ATF assault their building or killing somebody by having a drone [drop the bomb]?” he said. “Well, I don’t know. That’s pretty hard to say.”

GIFF President Rachel Feinman says that festival programmers chose Eye in the Sky as its opening night film because they felt it “would really resonate with our audience.”

The audience will be able to make its opinions known Wednesday night: Gavin Hood will be on hand to lead a post-film discussion.

Gasparilla International Film Festival Opening Night: Eye in the Sky
Tampa Theatre, 911 Franklin St., Tampa. Wed., March 30, 7:30 p.m. Director Gavin Hood in attendance. $15. gasparillafilmfestival.com. The festival runs March 30-April 3.

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