Eye in the Sky — Review

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Helen Mirren in a scene from Gavin Hood’s Eye in the Sky.


“[Director Gavin] Hood and screenwriter Guy Hibbert are conscious of how much more impactful a story such as this can be when the intelligence of the audience is presumed, instead of insulted.”


by Ken Bakely

One of the reasons that World War I was such a lethal conflict is because the militaries of both sides were taking old approaches to new technology. Regiments were still charging as if to take down one man firing a musket, instead of a machine gun. The battlefields featured both horses and tanks. The moral of the story is that it takes time to adjust, especially when it comes to war, which is, for better or worse, one of the cornerstone elements of humanity.

Gavin Hood’s Eye in the Sky reminds us that this struggle to reconcile technological progression still haunts us today. It brings up the very real debate over the morality and usefulness of drone warfare, and presents it in a tense, immediate way. Set over the course of a single day, the film focuses on a handful of characters, spread out across the globe, as they determine whether or not to bomb a house in Nairobi containing terrorists plotting an attack. While the operation seems somewhat straightforward on the outset, matters are complicated by the presence of a little girl (Aisha Takow) selling bread on the sidewalk outside the building.

In London, Colonel Katherine Powell (Helen Mirren), must make tough decisions and keep in touch with the others involved. These include the two American pilots (Aaron Paul and Phoebe Fox) at a base in Nevada who are remotely operating the device, a general (Alan Rickman) who is confiding with representatives of the British government on what decision to make, and the UK’s Foreign Minister (Iain Glen) who is on business in Singapore, but has to authorize the final move.  

Besides the moral dilemma of killing an innocent civilian, the political optics of the decision are hazy: If the terrorists live and are able to pull off their mission, killing dozens, it’s red meat for the British and American governments to spin as incentive for further involvement. But if the strike goes through, and the girl dies in the process, the enemy can use it as propaganda against the West, and recruit more operatives. There are no easy answers, but the clock is ticking, and something has to be done.

It is to the film’s credit that a sense of desperation and claustrophobia is conveyed, despite the global nature of the storyline. Eye in the Sky feels uncomfortably urgent throughout its 102 minute runtime. The sunny, sub-Saharan heat of the scenes in Kenya juxtapose sharply against the darkened control rooms in England and Nevada, where the only light provided comes in the form of off-blue computer screens. It’s cold and removed, as everyone subconsciously resents their detachment from their actions. Hood shows us how agonizing it is to be unable to directly intervene. Each passing moment, each additional person who has to be contacted, and each new development, provide a new element of frustration and pressure relayed upon our characters. From Alan Rickman’s quietly assertive and authoritative performance, to Aaron Paul’s increasingly harrowing turn as the soldier who must pull the physical trigger on the drone, to Helen Mirren’s stable work in portraying a character who must be seen as a leader – regardless of her own internal conflict – Eye in the Sky boasts strongly crafted performances, especially noteworthy when it comes to the actors’ abilities to effectively exchange dialogue in a firm rhythm.

What makes Eye in the Sky work beyond its own structural, surface-level format, is its staunch refusal to take a definitive stance. This is not a film interested in preaching to you. If it causes you to at least question the steadfastness of whatever side you may be on in regards to the issues at hand, then it has succeeded as a movie. That degree of autonomy allocated to the viewer shows that both Hood and screenwriter Guy Hibbert are conscious of how much more impactful a story such as this can be when the intelligence of the audience is presumed, instead of insulted.  However, this complexity can make the occasional stutter into dustiness seem all the more off-putting – did we really need an endless opening-credits barrage of  slow-motion shots of Takow’s character to realize that innocent children are innocent?

In any case, Hood presents Eye in the Sky through compact, compartmentalized sets. Each group of characters communicate electronically in some way – either through video chat, phone calls, or encrypted messaging. The film cuts back and forth between them and scene outside the house in question, where a local agent (Barkhad Abdi) provides updates from the ground. Everyone is physically separated from each other, potentially to the tune of thousands of miles. Those responsible for pulling the trigger aren’t at physical risk, but that opens up another can of worms – they feel no tactile reality. Every detail must be arranged indirectly. After the events of the finale have taken place, and what happens has happened, there is an acknowledgement on the part of the film that every character must continue to live as normal. They were never in physical danger, but they must live with the immediate consequences of their ordeal and whatever traumas may follow. The choice was never going to be easy, and their place in the ongoing debates of this new frontier of defense will continue.

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