'Eye in the Sky'
‘Eye in the Sky’ tackles the intricacies, irritations and bureaucracy of drone warfare in pointed, relevant, and often grimly funny ways. It positions itself as a war film that we know all too well through genre conventions, then twists itself into a talking-head thriller and undergraduate ethics lecture in a manner that’s never quite been done before because war has never quite been this way before.
For the bulk of its running time, the film is a tense and timely thriller that feels intriguingly fresh. Unfortunately, the movie slowly unravels into something a bit too predictable and heavy handed by the finale. What could have been the next great war film descends into merely being a good one. Although not a horrible fall from grace, it’s still not quite the great film on this subject that will inevitably arrive someday.
Helen Mirren stars as the remorseless and driven Colonel Katherine Powell. Operating out of an underground Army bunker, she’s been tracking a terrorist cell for ages. Thanks to some drones piloted by Aaron Paul and a creepy-because-it’s-real beetle camera piloted by an on-the-ground Barkhad Abdi, she knows those terrorists are about to strike and wants to take ’em out right now. Of course, since her mission was only to observe, the death order must march its way through varying levels of military and government bureaucracy. A collection of politicians and a military liaison (the late Alan Rickman) at a big desk don’t want to be the men to order the kill. She also has to deal with a few further lines of command from a foreign minister (Iain Glen) with food poisoning to an American contact who is just as vulgar and kill-crazy as you’d expect from a British picture. Things get even more complicated when an impossibly cute young girl selling bread with a “Please Don’t Kill Me” sign on her head (note: one of those things isn’t true) sets up shop in the line of fire. Yikes… whatever shall we do?
Yes, it’s a morality tale – one with characters debating a very specific military operation with implications that stretch out to encompass an entire new brand of warfare. That might sound a little tedious, but thankfully director Gavin Hood (the great ‘Tsotsi’ and the not-so-great ‘X-Men Origins: Wolverine’) has a knack for creating suspense through phone conversations, and screenwriter Guy Hibbert recognizes that the whole scenario is absurd enough to partially be a comedy. When ‘Eye in the Sky’ is at its best, the film functions as tense parable and bitter bureaucratic satire simultaneously, freely leaping from disturbing discussions to ridiculous ones without one tone overwhelming the other. The filmmakers ask BIG moral questions, but with enough of a light touch and genre movie sense of spectacle that it doesn’t feel too heavy-handed. Certainly, it never feels like real life, but the mixture of laughs and gulps is at least tonally consistent with the tricky real world subject matter.
Performances are also top notch, which helps a great deal. Helen Mirren’s snarling commander could easily have been a cartoonish representation of the military at its worst, but her clever casting and the soft layers she adds beneath a hard exterior prove rather compelling and human. Aaron Paul does his usual stressed-and-upset sidekick thing, while Barkhad Abdi proves that ‘Captain Philips’ was no fluke with another impressively naturalistic performance. However, above all else it’s wonderful (yet heartbreaking) to see Alan Rickman in what sadly proved to be his final screen appearance. Mixing the sly wit and gravitas that made his career, Rickman provides a backbone for the films seriocomic tone, bouncing between the laughs and moral weight with an ease to his performance that the rest of the film sadly can’t match.
There’s a brilliant hour somewhere in the middle of ‘Eye in the Sky’ that hits the filmmakers’ grand ambitions, but unfortunately it doesn’t extend through the entire running time. Some plot devices (specifically that innocent little girl) are far too contrived and obvious for a film that claims to be set in reality. Despite the brilliant bursts of black comedy used to soften the moral debate throughout, Hood gives into melodrama in the finale and somewhat cheapens his entire movie in the process.
‘Eye in the Sky’ is certainly a clever and witty film on the subject of drone warfare. It’s just a little too on-the-nose in its morality and too obvious in its drama to succeed through the end. For all the moral murkiness it explores, the story ultimately ends up in a soft and easy place aided by some ludicrous acts of Hollywood heroism. It’s a shame. Buried somewhere within this concept is a modern day ‘Dr. Strangelove’ that the filmmakers couldn’t quite find.