Wednesday 20 April 2016

Movie Review: Eye In The Sky (2015)

A taut military drama that delves into the moral grey zone of drone strikes, Eye In The Sky is a riveting spectacle. The realities of modern warfare are captured through the eyes of those with the power of life and death over suspects and innocents alike.

From her base in England, Colonel Katherine Powell (Helen Mirren) remotely commands Kenyan special forces in a mission to capture Nairobi-based high-level terrorists, including radicalized British and American citizens. In a wood-paneled meeting room, Katherine's superior Lieutenant General Frank Benson (Alan Rickman) monitors the mission in the company of government officials. In the desert outside Las Vegas, American drone pilot 2nd Lieutenant Steve Watts (Aaron Paul) assisted by Airman First Class Carrie Gershon (Phoebe Fox) provide "eye in the sky" support capabilities for the mission. Back on the ground in Nairobi, a Kenyan undercover team including Jama Farah (Barkhad Abdi) is closest to the action.

Events on the ground move quickly, and Katherine uncovers a safe house and a terrorist cell actively preparing to deploy two suicide bombers. She makes the decision to switch the mission from "capture" to "kill" with a drone missile strike. But she requires approval for the lethal attack from Benson and the cadre of politicians, prompting a round of hand-wringing about legalities and rules of engagement by British and American politicians across the globe. In the meantime civilians are in the vicinity of the safe house, in particular one young girl who sells bread just outside the house's perimeter wall. Destroying the house may save lives but will also likely mean civilian casualties, and Katherine, Benson, elected officials and the drone pilots are faced with a stark choice.

Directed by Gavin Hood and written by Guy Hibbert, Eye In The Sky is an efficient 102 minutes of gripping war drama. The decision to launch or not to launch a deadly missile strike to thwart a pending double suicide bombing is turned into an agonizing, prolonged and international quest to define what constitutes justifiable murder. A companion piece to Good Kill with elements borrowed from the classic Fail-Safe, Eye In The Sky is all about the dilemma of death: who dies, who lives, the value of an individual life in the cross-hairs, and the trade-off in knowingly hurting an innocent few for the sake of the innocent many.

The missile targets include British and American citizens who have joined the jihadists, and the collateral damage is likely to include Kenyan children; and yet destroying the safe house may prevent a terrorist atrocity. There are no easy answers, and while military commanders like Powell and Benson are quick to demand a decision and apply pressure for decisive military action to be approved, it is the civilian lawyers, politicians and their advisors who will have to make and defend the call, after digesting imperfect information and even less perfect forecasts of bomb damage impacts.

In pushing his points about the cold calculus of a hot war, Hibbert's script does carry some emotions a few notches too far. A couple of the politicians are sacrificed on the altar of buffoonery, while the mood within the drone pilot compound borders on incredulously unprofessional. Meanwhile Katherine Powell does all she can to sway decisions in her favour, and seeks to bend information to create assessments for politicians to swallow.

Helen Mirren is at her perfect best, portraying a soldier parking all humanity aside in a relentless pursuit of her targets. Alan Rickman as Lieutenant General Benson provides potent support in one of his final performances, Benson's higher rank inhabiting the more surreal world of politicians and necessitating a more circumspect approach to prodding for a decision.

Hood achieves contrasting aesthetics, from the chaos of the enemy-controlled neighbourhood in Nairobi where the safe house is uncovered to Powell's war room and Watts' drone command unit, both mostly lit by the glare of computer screens. Meanwhile Benson's surroundings exude government blandness while British and American politicians gallivant across the world selling weapons and making friends with one-party states.

Eye In The Sky plays out in the modern theatre of war, where bombs are controlled from thousands of miles away and missions are tracked in real time in three countries at once. For all the high-tech gadgets, spyware and miniature cameras, it is still innocent civilians who will take the brunt of any explosion, no matter whose finger is on the trigger.

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