Mark Reviews Movies

Eye in the Sky


3 Stars (out of 4)

Director: Gavin Hood

Cast: Helen Mirren, Aaron Paul, Alan Rickman, Barkhad Abdi, Jeremy Northam, Phoebe Fox, Monica Dolan, Ebby Weyime, Iain Glen,  Armaan Haggio, Aisha Takow, Richard McCabe, Gavin Hood, Faisa Hassan

MPAA Rating: R (for some violent images and language)

Running Time: 1:42

Release Date: 3/11/16 (limited); 3/18/16 (wider)

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Review by Mark Dujsik | March 17, 2016

For the foreseeable future, we will be having a debate about the efficacy of drone strikes. It's a necessary conversation, and despite being a fictional portrayal of such military action, Eye in the Sky establishes itself as an important part of that conversation.

Director Gavin Hood and screenwriter Guy Hibbert approach the material as if they were observing the workings of a complex machine. The gears are spread across three continents: the military intelligence and governmental body of the United Kingdom, the base of drone operations in the desert outside Las Vegas, and the on-the-ground intelligence officers in and around a village in Kenya. The pieces all work together in seamless efficiency to achieve the machine's goal. In this instance, that goal is to kill the members of a terrorist cell plotting to use suicide bombers to attack an unknown target.

While the events of the film may not end in an entirely positive result, there is something hopeful in its depiction of what, until this point, might sound like an unthinking, emotionless process. For those in charge of the machine, the ideal situation would not involve much thought or emotion. It would come out as basic math: Eliminate this handful of human beings who have the intent and the means to kill a variable number of people, and the result is saving that variable number of innocent lives.

There are, of course, questions to ask about drone policy even in such an ideal situation, but that's not the point here. The scenario presented within the film is not as cut-and-dried. The story here adds another element to the scenario—one that cannot be ignored by thinking, emotional human beings. The hopeful part of the film is that, even with the machinery in motion, there can be a wrench thrown into the works. It's not some failure of technology or equipment, either. It's the fact that there are people who have the capacity for thinking and feeling in positions of power and influence within the process.

Here's a breakdown of the particulars of the machine as presented here. In England, Colonel Katherine Powell (Helen Mirren) is in a top-secret military base overseeing the planned capture of British and American nationals who have turned to a terrorist cell based in Nairobi, Kenya. In London, Lt. General Frank Benson (Alan Rickman, in his final on-screen performance) is with the Prime Minister's Cabinet to watch the mission go forward via an assortment of live video feeds.

One of those feeds is provided by a drone from the United States Air Force, being piloted by Steve Watts (Aaron Paul) and Carrie Gershon (Phoebe Fox). The rest of the coverage is coming from two intelligence agents with the Kenyan military. Damisi (Ebby Weyime) has the terrorists' headquarters under surveillance with a miniature drone disguised as a bird, and when the cell members move to a nearby village, Jama (Barkhad Abdi) infiltrates their new location using a flying camera that looks like a beetle. Inside this new location, the terrorists are fitting a pair of new recruits with suicide vests. The mission objective chances from capture to kill.

Outside of the workings is a local family, whose day-to-day life opens the film. These are people who want nothing to do with the violent, religious extremism that surrounds them. Of key importance is Alia (Aisha Takow), a young girl who sells bread near the village's market. When the girl sets up shop next to the targeted building, almost everyone involved in the mission wants to reassess the situation.

There are some holdouts, of course. Powell and Benson are convinced they need to proceed as planned, lest the terrorists leave the building. That result would make the possibility of civilian casualties higher than it is at the moment, which would ensure that they won't be able to "prosecute" the targets.

The Cabinet is divided, leading them to constantly seek the approval of people higher up the ladder of power. Everyone up that ladder is preoccupied with other matters. The British Foreign Secretary (Iain Glen), for example, is at an arms fair in Beijing while dealing with a case of food poisoning.

Most of the players here are simply awaiting orders. Watts and Gershon, who have never participated in a kill mission (He has only done surveillance missions, and it's her first day on the job), are trying to stall in order to give the girl a chance to leave while—unbeknownst to her—the dispute about her fate unfolds in percentages and hypotheticals.

From the perspective of looking at this as an extension of the debate regarding drone policy, Hibbert's screenplay is fairly objective. It doesn't simply present both sides of the argument. It offers clear, logical reasons for the participants' opinions on the matter at hand. We can and do understand the rationale for moving forward as well as we can see the other side.

This isn't simply a moral dilemma. It raises questions about the laws that, in theory, allow such operations to go forward without any level of restraint. As the question of how to proceed almost absurdly moves up and back down the chain of authority, the decisions of those in power fall into two, distinct categories: those who don't want to be bothered with the question, because they believe the law answers it for them, and those who want to pass the responsibility to someone else.

The film works simultaneously as a clinical dramatization of a real-world issue, a pragmatic dissection of the attitudes of those who participate in such decisions, and a race-against-the-clock thriller. The last elements of Eye in the Sky are its weakest, most bluntly manipulative ones, but they don't detract from the essential questions the film raises.

Copyright © 2016 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.

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