Review: Eye In The Sky

Both a fitting final role for the late, great Alan Rickman and a tense, taut gut-punch of a political/war thriller, Eye In The Sky surprised me after a slow-burn start, making the most of some of its acting talent and illustrating the complex ethical issues in drone warfare.

In Kenya, Islamic terrorist group al-Shabaab is trying to recruit more western Muslims. With a meeting discovered between recruiters and converts, the UK and US militaries aim to strike. Colonel Katherine Powell (Helen Mirren) leads the operation from the UK, while drone pilot Steve Watts (Aaron Paul) and new navigator Carrie Gershon (Phoebe Fox) survey and prepare to strike from Nevada. General Frank Benson (Alan Rickman) tries to get government approval, but an easy attack is thwarted by the presence of a small Kenyan girl, Alia (Aisha Takow), beginning a race against time to decide what action to take.

Director Gavin Hood (who also stars as Watts’ superior officer in the US) crafts a slow-burning thriller that plays on assumptions, stereotypes and ethical dilemmas in war. You’re constantly switching (through some great editing from editor Megan Gill) between the many players involved across the US, UK and Kenya, and their conversations about what is right, legally responsible and ethical to do in the situation. Come the end you feel almost crushed by the weight every possible choice has on the characters; just because a drone has no pilot physically there does not mean someone isn’t operating it, and just because that pilot (and those making the decisions) aren’t present doesn’t mean they don’t understand and appreciate the gravity of their complex choices.

Hood’s direction, writer Guy Hibbert’s succinct script, Gill’s editing and a simmering soundtrack from Paul Hepker and Mark Kilian ratchet up this unease, with most of the film happening in real-time, and the cold, stark contrast between the military bases, the opulence of Whitehall and the dry, baking Kenya slum only magnifies the sense of remove. I know a lot of people will find the film too “talky”, but the situation demands conversation, discussion and thrashing out the stark consequences, and I felt this focus on drama not action reinforced what the film is trying to say. Some of the technology used appears a little too conveniently unreal, but this doesn’t detract from the overall point it’s trying to make too much.

[LOW-RES]-UK-Quad_AW_[29970]-Eye-in-the-SkyMirren’s cold, calculating military colonel is a great role for the actress, and is just the sort of excellent character that she (and other, older actresses often given stereotypical roles) probably revels in. She’s the main character, in a way, but Mirren forces a distance at times, and illustrates the conflict between doing your job and personal doubt very well. Aaron Paul is also finally given a chance to show his range in a film, with Watts a man standing by his conscience, and his and Fox’s scenes of doubt, confusion and horror are among the film’s best – giving you an insight into the feeling of being so distant and yet so close.

Some reviewers think Rickman’s role as the blustery, sardonic general here is a bit of miscasting, but I thought it was an excellent, albeit quieter showcase of his abilities. Benson is seemingly frustrated and bored waiting for politicians to make their choices, but in some quieter moments we get more of a sense of him than we do some of the other characters. In particular, a scene towards the end paints a man burnt out by conflict, and of course, there are a few wry and dry asides from the master of cynical sarcasm – his performance perfectly sums up why he’ll be missed.

Little Aisha Takow is good as the innocent, unassuming girl at the centre of everything; a young child enjoying her life is enough to hammer home the horrible implications. Finally, Captain Phillips‘ Barkhad Abdi was – I thought – wasted in his role as the man on the inside, particularly given his great performance in that earlier film. The host of smaller actors playing political or military roles form an interesting background meanwhile, and though none particularly stand out, their work helps the scenes of fraught discussion work.

On the flip side, the terrorists are faceless and distant, without any attempt to portray them beyond just missile fodder. As said earlier, some strangely futuristic technology portrayed with ropey CGI, and wasn’t really necessary, while some of the ensemble don’t really have much of a chance to stand out, compared to the time given to Paul, Mirren and Rickman.

However, the route the story takes, and the dripfeed of tension that takes it there, is powerful and engrossing. With some great performances from the main actors, and an important point to make, Eye In The Sky is definitely worth a watch.

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