Eye in the Sky, 2016
Directed by Gavin Hood.
Starring Helen Mirren, Aaron Paul, Alan Rickman, Barkhad Abdi, Aisha Takow, Phoebe Fox, Gavin Hood, Jeremy Northam, Monica Dolan, Kim Engelbrecht, and Iain Glen.
Col. Katherine Powell, a military officer in command of an operation to capture terrorists in Kenya, sees her mission escalate when a girl enters the kill zone triggering an international dispute over the implications of modern warfare.
Eye in the Sky is a rare movie that actually benefits from being slightly confusing. The narrative itself is straightforward, but there are an overwhelming amount of characters and rankings butting heads to keep track of throughout its stage play reminiscent morality exercise. For the first 10 minutes, director Gavin Hood introduces all of these pertinent players, sometimes with the short sequences even coming across incoherent and a bit of an editing mess (very few of the scenes contain connectivity), giving off the vibe that the rest of the feature will follow suit devolving into a disjointed nightmare, which thankfully it does not.
The reality is that Eye in the Sky is an intense, frustrating watch for all of the right reasons. There are confirmed suicide bombers holed up in a Kenyan home plotting something despicable (we can only assume they aim to detonate in a crowded area with the intent to take as many lives as possible), with a British military intelligence team led by hard-headed Colonel Katharine Powell (Helen Mirren) determined to cross the scum off of her kill list by any means necessary. However, the problem is that the blast radius from Steve’s (Aaron Paul) drone missile strike will result in some collateral damage, with the most important body being an innocent little girl selling bread to citizens outside the house.
It’s not long before various hierarchies of American and British government begin debating on which course of action to take; take one life to preserve another 80 or so, or do nothing and wait everything out hoping for the best. Personally, the latter just doesn’t jive with me, so I found myself on the side of pretty much everyone agreeing with Helen Mirren (which includes Alan Rickman in a fantastic posthumous performance), but Gavin Hood makes a wise directorial choice to present the dilemma as an incredibly complicated scenario that really has no right or wrong answer.
There will be moviegoers that watch Eye in the Sky that find themselves completely against the job-minded, strictly business Helen Mirren character, which is perfectly fine. The movie is a good 100 minutes of people arguing and debating right and wrong, positives and negatives, and the consequences of the fallout for each course of action, all from different viewpoints ranging from political to military to the media’s spin-doctoring. Eye in the Sky isn’t necessarily taking sides, instead displaying firm logic from both sides of the spectrum.
What truly sticks out though is how frightened some of these higher-ups are to make a decision. It’s not exactly a tough call, but you get the sense that some are interested in doing only what is best for their interests and are disinterested in accepting responsibility, while others are, as a result, sick of having to cut through all of the red tape, just eager to get a dirty job done so they can go home. We know Colonel Powell has, at the very least, a husband, but the script smartly never mentions him again, as everything we are witnessing is the hardened veteran’s job. Furthermore, to the credit of Helen Mirren, she is amazing in the role, subtly eliciting a wide variety of emotions with perfectly measured facial expressions and mannerisms. The movie never once passes her off as heartless and uncaring to the potential death of a young girl, but if the character were in the hands of a less experienced actress, things might have gone haywire with someone legitimately unlikable being presented.
To a lesser extent, the same goes for all of the performances. Alan Rickman is excellent at injecting some dry humor, while many of the other supporting roles also hit their mark. Some of the film’s humor with other characters is a bit jarring and out of place, but each and every character, regardless of screen time, feel useful to the plot. Aaron Paul in particular gives the performance of his career, powerfully selling the traumatic stress and effects that come from essentially being the trigger man. It’s Aisha Takow though in the role of the nine-year-old girl that exudes childhood innocence and is disarmingly cute, out on her own in the streets selling bread to make her father proud; she will have those on the side of Colonel Powell slightly rethinking what should be done or hoping alternative ideas pan out successfully.
Therein lies some of the problems with Eye in the Sky though; it can be contrived and manipulative. The filmmakers knew no one would care about one casualty if it were some random dude caught in the crossfire while walking the street, so they wrote up an extremely convenient subplot about a parked child selling bread right by the house. At one point, the team even find a way to get rid of all the bread hoping she will move, but not before she pulls out even more bread to sell, leaving viewers a bit irritated for the wrong reasons. There is even a scene where Colonel Powell is asking a collateral damage analyst what could be done to minimize the percentage of death, that goes from saying nothing can be done to finding another possible solution all within two minutes. The point is that there is some wonky writing to be found within what is otherwise a strongly riveting turn of events.
Still, Eye in the Sky is a highly suspenseful look at drone warfare (Barkhad Abdi of Captain Phillips fame is also here, working undercover for the good guys by controlling various spying devices using a hacked PlayStation Vita, making for an illuminating look at how some of this actually gets accomplished) that is most definitely relevant and important. At the very least, it’s far more insightful than sharing memes and arguing politics on Facebook.
Also, it has to be mentioned that Alan Rickman may be going out on one of the most emotionally resonant lines in the history of military cinema, assertively exclaiming after all is said and done “Never tell a soldier that he does not know the cost of war.” R.I.P.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★ ★