Film Review: 'Eye in the Sky'
Modern warfare feels downright impersonal. Boots on the ground have been replaced with drones in the sky that spy on activity and strike when necessary. Blowing up buildings and humans seem more like a video game, and pixels on a screen garner zero sympathy.
What director Gavin Hood's Eye in the Sky does is prove all of that completely wrong. The war drama, with characters spanning the entire globe but all focusing on an Al-Shabaab terrorist meeting in Nairobi, Kenya, is a heart-stopping roller-coaster ride that wastes not one minute of screen time. And its only focus is in one day in the life of modern warfare, cataloging it with painstaking detail and emotional validity.
British Col. Katherine Powell (Helen Mirren) heads the capture operation from a war room, and Lt. Gen. Frank Benson (Alan Rickman, who shines in his final screen appearance), her higher-up, watches from a conference hall. Their Kenyan watchdog on the ground is Jama (Barkhad Abdi, an Oscar nominee from Captain Phillips), who uses disguise and gadgetry to spy on the terrorists from a comfortable distance. Said tech reveals a swath of vests and explosives in the house, which means the terrorists are plotting a suicide bombing that same day - a revelation that prompts Powell and Benson to change their operation to "kill." They request a U.S. drone strike, and Las Vegas-based drone pilot Steve Watts (Aaron Paul) is pegged for the job.
But the job is not as simple as it would sound: attorneys and public officials surrounding Benson all worry about the legal, political, and moral consequences of done-striking a friendly, sovereign nation. Besides all of that red tape, the biggest wrench in the operation is an innocent, playful Kenyan girl (Aisha Takow) who begins selling bread right within the strike zone of the drone missile. And that makes Watts shiver as his finger sits on the trigger.
Gavin Hood stretches the rubber band a little bit more with every move and decision the characters make. In fact, Eye in the Sky is so full of these tension-building moments that we hinge on the characters' every word, and a trove of sharp performances makes their situations authentically sympathetic. This is a high-wire juggling act with the lives of perhaps hundreds of innocents at stake, and the strain of the responsibility can be seen on every face.
These characters all bring their personalities to the table (another testament to their performances), and Eye in the Sky humanizes them even further with little bits of baggage they carry with them to the operation. Powell has only just risen from bed at the crack of dawn, and she carries a strong resolve and spirit that makes men half her age and twice her size devote their full respect. Benson has only just finished shopping for a toy for his granddaughter before sitting down and doing his unenviable work. And Watts, a college grad who only joined the Air Force for the four years of guaranteed employment, is now shouldered with the responsibility of risking an innocent girl's life. Eye in the Sky juggles a huge handful of characters - on a high wire, no less - to squeeze the maximum amount of drama in a vast, sharp screenplay.
It's because of this that Eye in the Sky is able to explore the legal and moral implications of modern warfare exceptionally well. If the drone missile isn't launched to spare the life of the girl, the suicide bombers will go on to take a massive amount of lives, and the U.S. and Britain will have known all about the plan and done nothing to stop it. On the other hand, Watts can take out the terrorists with a single drone strike, but risk killing the Kenyan girl and angering an entire country. It's a fierce, impassioned debate that manages to reach the U.K. Foreign Secretary (played by Game of Thrones' Iain Glen) and even the U.S. Secretary of State. The film raises even more moral and political conundrums throughout its network of characters but never once becomes too muddled or overcrowded at once; it's consistently attention-grabbing and entertaining throughout, and for the film to do it so well is outstanding.
The film does carry its more humorous moments to help chase down the harder bits, and they additionally serve to make the characters and the story all the more sympathetic. Eye in the Sky may be only about just one event, but its themes resonate far beyond the day, the war, and the screen. Modern warfare is treacherous, complex, and undoubtedly personal. But even after the film's central conflict has been resolved, every character has to go to bed and do it all again tomorrow.
Rated R. 102 minutes.
Written by Guy Hibbert.
Directed by Gavin Hood.
Starring Helen Mirren, Aaron Paul, and Alan Rickman.