Film Review: Eye in the Sky

Eye in the Sky

‘Eye in the Sky’ is a film that explores the moral, political and personal implications of modern warfare. While the language of war remains unchanged, decisions to strike are made in military bunkers hundreds of miles from the front line; the probability of casualties is sorted by computer program and the bullet comes not from a gun, but fired from a clear, blue sky.

We meet Colonel Katherine Powell (played by Helen Mirren), at the make-or-break moment of a top-secret operation to track and capture some of the world’s most wanted terrorists.

The terrorists are located, meeting at a house in a heavily-populated area of Kenya. Using some (highly creative) remote surveillance, Powell learns that the terrorists are in fact suiting up for a suicide mission. Letting them leave the house is not an option: the plan moves from ‘capture’ to ‘kill’.

The matter is further complicated by the arrival of a young girl (charmingly played by Aisha Takow), who sits outside the house selling her mother’s bread. She has unwittingly placed herself squarely in the killing zone. The likelihood of her surviving a drone strike is minimal at best.

‘Eye in the Sky’ centres around the concept of collateral damage:  can it be justified? What level of risk is deemed acceptable? Is the prize of killing terrorists worth the life of a little girl?

Director Gavin Hood does a great job of letting the story unfold whilst never losing the pace. Played across several continents, Hood impressively connects the characters and tracks their position in this unenviable game of chance. To save one life would mean potentially sacrificing many others. There is no clean solution, no easy answer. Every variable comes with a price. So what do you do? It’s an almost unbearable question, but one that has to be resolved.

Like the characters, we are presented with the facts, but it is never suggested as to how we should interpret them. This is a film with more questions than answers, and ‘Eye in the Sky’ paints the moral component of warfare in its full complexity. Even as the credits roll, you’re still not sure exactly where the line should be drawn. An emotionally-complex film demands a lot of its actors, and Gavin Hood has assembled a terrific cast.

Helen Mirren as Colonel Powell is compelling; often voicing our frustrations when protocol gets in the way of what needs to be done. Aaron Paul follows his Breaking Bad co-star, Bryan Cranston, into a career of solidly-built film performances. Playing pilot Steve Watts, he is responsible for directing the drone. Aaron’s gift for portraying layers of emotion has been put to good use here. His work for television has made him a master of the close-up, and Aaron’s depiction of a man caught between doubt and duty nearly steals the film.

The final word, however, has to go to Alan Rickman. ‘Eye in the Sky’ was one of the last films he completed before his death earlier this year. Playing Lieutenant General Frank Benson, Rickman leaves us with a nuanced performance that showcases his warmth and wry humour; and his ability to bring great sincerity to a role and make it entirely believable. In short, ‘Eye in the Sky’ is not only a fitting tribute to Rickman’s talent, but a reminder of just what we have lost.

Empire magazine, in its review of ‘Eye in the Sky’, dubbed the film a ‘moral thriller’ – and it’s hard to argue with that assessment. The film hits another level simply because what’s at stake is all too real. This situation has been played out in military bunkers and conference rooms many times over; the same questions, doubts and hesitations.

On paper, the call to strike should be simple. But ‘Eye in the Sky’ takes us deeper into just how the moral and political intersect. There’s a reason why modern warfare still needs personnel; there are choices that an algorithm simply cannot make. The importance of that real-life experience is played out in the final scenes.

When berated for his decision, Lieutenant General Frank Benson swiftly responds by pointing out the carnage he has witnessed in his career. There is no win without loss, and the decision has been made by someone who knows what it means to be at war. ‘Eye in the Sky’ is not just a moral thriller, but a film that isn’t afraid to philosophise. ‘To do a great right, do a little wrong’ – the sentiment isn’t new, but in the questions it provokes, it defines the cost of war.

Helen Tope

Twitter: @Scholar1977


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