Film Review: 'Eye In The Sky'
Opened: 8 April 2016 (UK)
Cast: Helen Mirren, Aaron Paul, Alan Rickman, Barkhad Abdi, Jeremy Northam, Iain Glen
Director: Gavin Hood
Producers: Ged Doherty, Colin Firth, David Lancaster
Eye In the Sky is such a crafty and intelligent movie that it manages to convey philosophical musings on war and state-craft in a thriller- format with hardly any reel devoted to philosophical discussions on the same! This is a movie then that should not be missed at any cost. The movie unfolds guised as an edge-of-the-seat thriller with so many emotions encapsulating age-old discussions on wars, their futility or more-so, their necessity in the geo-political world as we know now where legal and moral discussions take heated turns across seas, oceans, deserts, countries and continents.
A covert drone operation is the order of the day near Nairobi, Kenya where 3 Islamist extremists who are on the Most Wanted Lists of Britain, the US, and Kenya are presently stationed. The eyes-in-the-sky (and of course also the actual drone-operators) are ensconced in Creech air-base in Las Vegas, Nevada; the Colonel commanding them is somewhere in Sussex, her over-seers including her military superior (a subdued and superbly detached Alan Rickman – his last outing) and a minister and attorney in London (British government over-seers); the English foreign-secretary is in Singapore peddling arms and ‘protective’ gears for soldiers, the American foreign-secretary is in China playing ping-pong with a group of God-knows-why-over-awed Chinese men: And at the center of this tragi-comic circus is an East-African girl-child selling bread unbeknownst that her life is hanging by an invisible thread running across all these inter-continental touch-points. The narrative-arc then plays out on the decision of Go/No-Go with regard to the drone-attack on the extremists’-haven unfortunately nestled right next to the girl’s home (her father, a bi-cycle repairer and her mother, a home-maker complete her family) And along this arc, the film masterfully takes the audience along in its thrilling moments and discerningly laid-out philosophical toppings on the actors, their actions, and the consequences of ‘decision-making.’
Among many such brilliant scenes is the one where the Colonel (Mirren) is faced with legalities and ‘moralities.’ (Quite symbolic; she has a legal representative to protect her and the child of disastrous consequences but there isn’t any ‘moral’ advisor; morality, ladies and gentlemen, is your own personal baggage.) Her verbal back-and-forth with the legal-advisor is top-notch. Also fantastic are the scenes conveying the tension housed in what the Americans are proud to call the ‘situation’ room; this time, however, the room is in England & the situation is in East Africa. Any change in the situation on ground in Nairobi mandates discussions and ‘approvals’ from higher-ups as minutes and seconds could mark the difference between two suicide-bombers blowing themselves and the world according to them and around them and its prevention with, of course, a necessitated collateral damage. Symbolism is powerful here: The American foreign-secretary gets a call when he is on a tour in China asking for his approval since one of the extremists is an American citizen but he is busy playing ping-pong and is flustered at being disturbed with ‘such’ a call! That ‘ping-pong’ ball being poorly smashed around is the life of a kid in a ‘third-world’ country for God’s sake! That also reflects the inability of those-in-power in taking decisions and getting along by passing the buck. The British foreign-secretary, after getting food-poisoned, is busy taking a ‘dump’ in a whatever-star hotel when scenes are inter-cut with drone-operators readying their weapons to target, in essence, taking a drone-dump onto one of the poor neighbor-hoods in a poor country! The father of the girl plays a dual role; an open-minded man who wants his daughter to study and be a million-miles away from Sharia-enforced lands and also of a bread-winner who but has to repair bi-cycles belonging to Sharia-lovers or Sharia-haters. (He hides her school-books when a customer comes along lest word breaks out that he is encouraging his daughter getting educated and mockingly admonishes her when she is lost in child-hood and plays hula hoop in front of that same Sharia-loving customer.) What happens to these folks when, an ‘objective’ drone plunders their lives? Will the same person STILL call Al-Shabab and its members fanatics? What has that ‘surgical’ strike achieved if this man were to turn to the other side or be radicalized? When numerical counts of 8 versus 80 are taken with regard to casualties and ‘greater’ damage and decisions are made, what are the consequences of those decisions?
All actors are in top form. Helen Mirren plays an unflinching military commander Katherine Powell to the extent that the audience shouldn’t be judged if they mutter ‘cold-hearted bitch’ – watch her talking to the ‘damage’ estimator and influencing him to somehow bring down the percentage of collateral damage to below 50% to get a legal clearing for the strike — under their breaths. (There is a very subtle, bubbling-under-the-surface hint of race-awareness in scenes where she is negotiating with the damage-estimator about cutting down the percentage of collateral damage. He is black, and possibly from Africa. Either way, Mirren talks to him quite differently even when she is practically ordering him to fudge numbers. There is something weighing on her mind when she is negotiating with him; both with regard to the unhealthy but arguably mandated necessity of cutting down the percentage, but maybe more so since she is talking with a black man about fudging numbers so she could get ‘legal’ clearance to bomb an African city’s neighborhood! Alan Rickman as Lt General Benson is superb in conveying a sense of urgency, detachment, and an embodiment of years of military-hardened exterior. Barkhad Abdi who stunned audiences as the Somalian pirate in Captain Phillips convincingly plays the mindful ground-operative. The actors playing members of the UK government are equally effective. Aaron Paul and Phoebe Fox as novices being forced to look at targets and innocent civilians BEFORE and AFTER drone-strikes for hours-on-end convey their frustrations and tumult of emotions finely. And the girl at the center of it all, Aisha Takow’s Alia Mo’Allim, effectively conveys the symbolism of life being caught between the devil and not-so-deep sea.
Are we know destined to live with the fact that murder or death – depending on which side you are on – by numbers is the new modern-warfare reality? Who wins? And who wins fast and first? Do the breads sell fast or do the bombs blow earlier or the drone hell-fire missile strikes sooner? Who is the decision-maker? What has greater weight: The mathematical, surgical precision of a drone or the moral ambiguity of the human?
Angela: What you have done sitting in your chair is just disgraceful.
Benson: What you have seen just now sitting on your chair when dipping biscuits in your tea is what I have experienced as a General being on the ground and seeing the after-math of 5 terrorist bombings. So NEVER tell a soldier that he cannot and doesn’t understand the cost of war.
Benson to the minister: You tell us to go to war. We go and do our business. YOU deal with the after-math.