Our world has changed dramatically --- and so have our methods of fighting wars/terrorists. Top-Secret drone strikes are the focus of "Eye in the Sky", which refers to the actual Reaper drone which is outfitted with cameras and Hellfire missiles.
Starring Helen Mirren as Colonel Katherine Powell, Alan Rickman, in his last performance, as Lt. General Frank Benson, Powell's commanding officer, and Aaron Paul as the drone pilot Steve Watts, "Eye in the Sky" is an extremely tense and absorbing exposé of the moral, legal and political aspects of unmanned warfare.
Powell, based in the U.K., has been tracking a female British citizen-turned-terrorist for six years. She and her team have finally pinpointed a rendezvous location in Kenya, and are planning to capture a group of highly-prized individuals.
When their surveillance discovers an imminent threat of suicide bombing missions, Powell's intent becomes kill instead of capture. But, as Watts, the American drone pilot based in Las Vegas, is about to engage, a nine-year-old girl sets up a stand to sell bread in the kill zone, and Watts refuses to pull the trigger.
Directed by Gavin Hood, who was present at our screening, and written by Guy Hibbert, "Eye in the Sky" covers quite a bit of ground regarding all of the complexities involving these killer drone strikes. It's a slippery slope which has become a political minefield. No one, except Powell, wants to take responsibility for this deadly decision, so consequently government officials are called upon to weigh in, which only complicates matters.
The cast is definitely top-notch. Mirren, who has never played a member of the military before, is superb. This is Powell's show and she doesn't appreciate everyone second-guessing her. Mirren, who is so formidable in every role she plays, executes with the precision which we would expect from a colonel in the British army. And yet, even she is pulling for the child to make it out of harm's way.
Rickman was one of the best actors of his generation, and he does not disappoint as the general coping with a bunch of government procrastinators.
One of his first scenes has him shopping in a London toy store trying to choose the right doll for his granddaughter. His frustration with the doll selection is as palpable as his tenuous situation with the British Attorney General and other members of the government when deciding to proceed with the strike. This last role was a perfect one for him --- and his final remarks to Angela Northman (Monica Dolan), a government cry baby, are stunningly succinct, and a memorable tribute to his legacy.
Paul is a good choice for Watts. He manages the right amount of empathy and reserve, and we believe he cares about the safety of the child. But an even better performance comes from Barkhad Abdi, who plays a Nairobi spy, Jama Farah. Abdi was nominated for a Best Supporting Actor Oscar for his role as a Somali pirate, starring opposite Tom Hanks in "Captain Phillips". He generates a few white-knuckle moments as the operative tasked with getting as close to the terrorists' safe house as possible, while maintaining a low profile. It's a small role, but also a thrilling pivotal one.
Hood, himself, has a minor part as Lt. Colonel Ed Walsh, Watts' military commander. When he spoke and answered questions after our screening, Hood detailed the amount of work that went into the production, along with all of the moral ambiguities he and Hibbert faced. In the end, "Eye in the Sky" is an entertaining movie experience that will leave you contemplating our present and future warfare.
Opinion: See It Now!
"Eye in the Sky" is a brilliantly executed thriller about the role of technology in our modern-day war on terror, while also posing moral and political dilemmas about the value of human life. It's a tribute to director Gavin Hood ("Tsotsi") and screenwriter Guy Hibbert that the entire film centers around a single episode that transpires simultaneously in places ranging from Nairobi to London to Las Vegas.
The movie also raises more questions than it answers. How do you assess the importance of one life as opposed to the lives of many more that could be at risk? And when that one life is that of an innocent nine-year-old girl, does that raise the stakes in the decision-making process?
The story is propelled by a terrific cast, including Helen Mirren as Colonel Katherine Powell, Aaron Paul as drone pilot Steve Watts, Barkhad Abdi as Nairobi operative Jama Farah, and Alan Rickman, in his final role, as Lt. General Frank Benson. Director Hood also cast himself as Lt. Colonel Ed Walsh, and he is commendable.
When Farah unleashes his flying surveillance drone, in the form of a black beetle, into the safe house where terrorists are being armed with suicide vests, the intelligentsia is witness to what is happening. In today's military jargon, the tiny drone is called a Micro Aerial Vehicle or "MAV". Meanwhile, pilot Watts is poised to bomb the terrorists into oblivion from his post in Las Vegas, a staggering 9000 miles away. And Col. Powell needs only to give the order.
But there is a problem. When a little African girl sets up a table to sell loaves of bread, she is mere feet from the target, and will likely be killed as collateral damage. But the terrorists would be thwarted from potentially killing scores more in a shopping district.
No one in authority wants to issue the order that will essentially murder a little girl. Winning the propaganda war, to some in charge, is as critical as stopping the terrorists themselves. One after another, each top official passes the buck to someone else. We can only surmise that similar discussions are held all the time in a war that is defined by its technology.
Mirren is fabulous in virtually every role she accepts. She long ago cemented her status as one of the world's greatest actresses, and as Lt. Colonel Powell she is a credible military officer. Paul, a three-time Emmy winner for "Breaking Bad", does not overplay the guilt his pilot registers if he should "pull the trigger". His inner conflict is real as he is torn between his military duty and his own conscience.
Abdi, the Oscar nominee who confronts Tom Hanks in "Captain Phillips", is sensational as the one figure who has a chance to save the girl. His reaction to being found out is a realistic response that anyone in his position might have. And seeing the late Alan Rickman, albeit as the insensitive hawk in this film, brings more than a tinge of sadness that he has entertained audiences for the last time. As the man in the Army's hot seat making the call, he is quietly electric.
Hibbert conceived his script well before it was revealed publicly that ordinary civilians had been killed in U.S. drone attacks. But when that news broke, the screenwriter found producers anxious to make a movie, as quickly as possible. One of those producers was Colin Firth, "Eye in the Sky" being the first feature length film the great British actor has backed with his reputation.
"Eye in the Sky" is easily one of the year's best movies thus far. It's as tense and exciting as any super hero film, with its analytical dialogue and controversial subject matter made real by men and women who are forced to make life-and-death decisions. It's an important story that should stand the test of time because of its originality, execution and immediacy to current events.
Opinion: Strong See It Now!