Directed by Gavin Hood
Starring Helen Mirren, Alan Rickman, Aaron Paul & Barkhad Abdi
Film Review by Chris Olson
If you wanted to find a silver lining to modern global terrorism (and I think we all do), it’s that it has given us all a lot to think about. Politically, culturally, and socially, one of the most defining aspects of our lives over the last 15 years has been the proliferation of extremism since 9/11. Like it or not, most eras in history are inherently linked to a war or conflict and ours will be the War on Terror, which has dug deep roots and is here to stay for foreseeable years to come. The film industry, initially shying away from events, gradually became more comfortable tackling them, with films being based in Afghanistan, Iraq, and other Middle Eastern locations which grew increasingly critical of the Western approach to handling the frankly impossible situation (Rendition, Lions For Lambs to name just a couple).
A decade and a half on from the attack on the Twin Towers, and Gavin Hood’s film, Eye in the Sky, explores the seemingly detached nature of Western military strategy which utilises drone technology to take out high profile terrorists, and the multilateral issues this method raises.
Taking place across several continents simultaneously, the plot of Eye in the Sky centres around a British Colonel (Helen Mirren) who is running a military operation in which she hopes to catch two high profile members of a terrorist organisation. Working with teams across the UK, the US and in Kenya itself, Mirren hopes she is reaching the culmination of six years of chasing, however, a drone pilot (Aaron Paul) muddies the waters, when he delays the strike by demanding a recalibration of the possible collateral damage. What ensues is a huge amount of “referring up” in order to get clearance for a strike.
What is sensational about Hood’s film is that it achieves a glorious cinematic experience for viewers without showing them much more than heated discussions. Aside from some CGI drone shots and amazing bug-shaped flying cameras, the scenes take place in offices, cabins or hotel rooms - not exactly James Bond locations! However, the fierce, unrelenting tension which strings these locations together, which all derives from one central decision, makes this film more effective than the flashiest of globetrotting war movies or spy films. This is bolstered by a phenomenal script being delivered by some phenomenal performances. Mirren is a brutal revelation, offering up a portrayal of a character so driven by action and necessity that the political squabbling that comes from such warfare drives her to the point of outrage. She liaises with Lieutenant Benson (Alan Rickman), who are fantastic together in their restrained, yet obvious, dislike for red tape and political maneuvering.
Other standout performances include Barkhad Abdi as an operative on the ground in Kenya who risks his life in almost every scene he is in. During one fantastic sequence he manages to elude a group of armed militants which is genuinely edge-of-your-seat stuff.
In any film which hops between locations, there is always the risk of under-developing certain story threads or characters, and largely Hood bypasses this, keeping everyone in the same loop and managing to tell a cohesive and compelling narrative. The only slight disappointment audiences may have is in Aaron Paul’s pilot, whose rookie status and reluctance to follow orders in the gung-ho manner most of his American compatriots do, never gets fully fleshed out. That being said, Paul delivers a grounded performance which is still great.
Thematically, Eye in the Sky asks more questions than it answers. Rather than telling a bread and water heroes and villains story, it offers up a plate of spaghetti mixed with a stew of a thousand ingredients, each one reluctant to be considered the main one, but all of which vital to the film’s success. By engaging in such a detached manner of combat, there is already a degree of relevancy to the movie, whose audience will have experienced watching the 24-hour news coverage of the war over the years. The quagmire of extremism itself has not exactly shrunk during the duration of this global conflict, and Hood’s film begs the question that are drone attacks saving lives and minimising casualties, or actually turning more people against a Western force which invades from the sky?
Eye in the Sky also points an accusatory finger are commentators who relish the luxury of non-involvement, with Rickman’s beautiful delivery to a magnanimous politician who offhandedly denounces the whole operation as being disgraceful.
Eye in the Sky stands up there with the best offerings from a genre so entrenched in our popular culture. A stark reminder of the relentless war being waged and the impossible decisions being made by real people. Regardless of your political leanings, it’s a film which deserves our attention for creating a discourse of where we are right now, what we should have learned, and how we can never stop evaluating what we do in the quest for peace.