UK Release Date: 15th April 2016
Runtime: 102 minutes
Director: Gavin Hood
Writer: Guy Hibbert
Starring: Helen Mirren, Alan Rickman, Aaron Paul, Barkhad Abdi, Iain Glen, Phoebe Fox, Aisha Takow
Synopsis: A drone operation in Kenya, looking to capture a wanted individual, takes a dramatic turn when the chance arises to prevent a terrorist attack if the use of lethal force from the sky can be authorised.
Drones have very quickly become a massive part of our lives, from their use for aerial photography to plans for them to become a preferred method of parcel delivery. They are still best known, however, for their use as a thoroughly modern form of warfare. America tackled the subject of drone warfare on the big screen with last year’s underrated Ethan Hawke drama Good Kill and now there’s a British perspective on the controversial military equipment with Eye in the Sky. It’s a morally complex tale in which no one is quite sure of the right thing to do.
Colonel Katherine Powell (Helen Mirren) arrives at a military HQ to oversee the capture of several high value terrorist targets in Kenya. She is in control of a drone piloted by Steve Watts (Aaron Paul) and Carrie Gershon (Phoebe Fox) in Nevada and the operation is also being watched by General Benson (Alan Rickman) and a COBRA committee in London. As Kenyan agent Jama (Barkhad Abdi) goes deep undercover, the reveal of an imminent threat turns the operation into a potential kill mission, but the presence of a young girl (Aisha Takow) in the blast radius muddies the waters both legally and morally.
Eye in the Sky is a film that focuses not on the explosions and violence of war, but on the intellectual turmoil faced by those with their fingers on the triggers. The ability to survey a situation from the air allows a greater consideration of the implications of violence, but this film is also keen to make clear the layers of bureaucracy that can be introduced by that consideration. Guy Hibbert’s script, unlike Good Kill, doesn’t take a clear side in the drone debate, but it delicately sets out both sides of the argument to great effect, casting a divide between the pragmatic military types and those keen to take a step back and talk.
Never tell a soldier that he does not know the cost of war.
This is certainly a film that seeks to engage in an ideological debate, but it doesn’t forget even for a second that it is, first and foremost, a white knuckle thriller. Gavin Hood, fresh from the underrated Ender’s Game, finds real visual flair in what is often a parade of hushed voices, hurried typing and snippets of phone calls. There’s a kinetic feel to Eye in the Sky that is a real marvel of direction, particularly given the difficulty of hopping between myriad locations across the world.
The film works also as a fitting tribute to the late Alan Rickman. Eye in the Sky is his final live-action role – he will appear as a voice in Alice Through the Looking Glass – and it’s a prime example of his unique gravitas. Rickman is superb as the exasperated military veteran desperate to coax a decision from the panicky political types agonising about the right thing to do. His final scene, an incisive sequence about the value of life and the cost of war, is a potent goodbye for a performer of remarkable depth and unique charisma.
He is matched well by the rest of the cast, including Helen Mirren as the icy tactician holding the operation together. Mirren’s determination to reach her goals leads her to make some tricky and often questionable decisions in order to avert a terrorist atrocity. Aaron Paul banishes the memory of staggering around drunk for the entirety of Triple 9 with a robust turn as the fiercely moral American with his finger on the trigger. In an environment in which everyone else is talking about the implications of launching a strike, it’s Paul’s softly-spoken character who actually has to flick the kill switch.
I came here to witness a capture, not a targeted assassination.
Crucially, Eye in the Sky also manages to puncture its tension with occasional flashes of absurdist humour. Game of Thrones star Iain Glen pops up in a handful of bizarre, but amusing, scenes as Foreign Secretary watching the situation whilst dressed in a hotel robe and dealing with a nasty bout of food poisoning. The American involvement, meanwhile, is largely limited to the Secretary of State interrupting a game of table tennis to grumpily proclaim Stateside support for a potential drone strike.
This is a film that is admirably committed both to outlining the arguments for and against drone warfare whilst also delivering an efficient, gripping thriller with clearly defined characters.
Pop or Poop?
Director Gavin Hood delivers what is certainly his best film to date with Eye in the Sky. It’s a movie packed with both brains and brawn, delivering sophisticated moral and legal debate alongside genuine tension and drama. The performances, including Alan Rickman’s live action swansong, make the most of the weighty material and clearly drawn characters.
It’s a film with plenty to say and it knows exactly the best way to say it in order to produce the most impact, on both a narrative and character level.
Do you agree with my review? Let me know in the comments section.