Eye in the Sky is the type of film that lends itself to descriptors like “timely” and “prescient”.
It may not be the first drama to tackle the spectre of drone warfare – Ethan Hawke-starrer A Good Kill did so through the lens of a character study – but it is certainly has the weightiest cast.
The eye in question is a MQ-9 Reaper, a US-manned drone equipped with two Hellfire missiles currently positioned 20,000 feet over a terrorist safe-house in Nairobi, Kenya. Commanding the operation is the steely Colonel Katherine Powell (Helen Mirren) – not from the stark, sunny Nevada air-force base where her USAF pilot Steve Watts (Aaron Paul) is stationed, but from a bunker in early-morning Sussex; around which a whole network of checks and oversights is based.
Powell has been tracking a terrorist couple for six years – one a white British woman and clear analogue for the real-life Samantha Lewthwaite AKA the White Widow – and now, with her sights on them, is determined to bring them in. However, the mission changes when a bug operated by an undercover agent on the ground, Jama Farad (Barkhad Abdi), reveals preparations are underway for a suicide bombing that will most likely claim dozens of lives should they be permitted to leave the compound.
When the mission objective leaps from “capture” to “terminate” (or rather “prosecute”), Powell and the whole staff discover an added moral component: the presence of a young bread-selling girl, Alia (Aisha Takow), on the street outside the compound; introducing the probability of collateral damage. As politicians overseen by a Lieutenant General Benson (Alan Rickman) argue over the legality of a unilateral strike and look to cover their backs politically, all involved find themselves faced with an impossible decision.
Unlike Hood’s 2007 film Rendition – which dealt (understandably) one-sidedly with the issue of “extraordinary rendition” – Eye in the Sky approaches the situation from every angle. Powell is determined to prevent an attack, even if it means manipulating the odds. Watts and his colleague Carrie Gershon (Phoebe Fox) are hoping to avoid pulling the trigger on an innocent. Jama is committed to saving the young girl’s life, despite the immediate risk posed to his own by the militant extremists who run the community.
While playing out essentially in real-time in a series of interlinking rooms – and, of course, that one street in Nairobi – Guy Hibbert’s script makes the most of the discursive material; specifically in the contrasting approaches to the dilemma. The US Secretary of State (Michael O’Keefe) barely steps away from a game of ping pong to brusquely give his assent; his British counterpart, the green-around-the-gills Foreign Secretary (Iain Glenn) faces the crisis from atop his porcelain throne.
Hood’s direction is pacey and assured, deftly handling the different narrative strands and steadily building up the suspense as decision time approaches. Even so, Eye in the Sky does stumble; slipping into superfluous sentimentality in scenes of the Alia joyfully hula hooping or learning maths from her enlightened father, Musa (Arman Haggio). Paul Hepker and Mark Kilian’s swelling Middle East-inflected score similarly telegraphs emotion where Watts’ teary desperation says enough.
Aaron Paul’s strength as a performer lies in is his ability to wordlessly convey internal conflict – he always looks like a war is raging within his skull – and, by confining him to, essentially, a state-of-the-art Portacabin, the film plays to this strength. Forced to watch and wait as a decision is made by commanders and politicians a world away, the film captures, if only in brief, the trauma of those whose only recourse is to carry out those orders when they come – whatever they might be.
Director Gavin Hood’s first film since 2013’s Ender’s Game, Eye in the Sky also marks the welcome return of Barkhad Abdi to our screens for the first time since his Oscar-nominated debut in Captain Phillips. It also signifies the last time that Alan Rickman will grace us with his presence.
Though best recognised for the lightly sardonic air he brought to all his roles – the sense of an eyebrow perpetually raised – Rickman also brought an undeniable bedrock of sincerity. Whether struggling to purchase a doll for his daughter (who one assumes must be roughly the same age as Alia) or succinctly issuing a rebuttal to Monica Dolan’s self-righteous civil servant – “Never tell a soldier that he does not know the cost of war” – Rickman is a master of reserve. More than just the sneer and the drawl popularized by his omnivorous turn in Prince of Thieves, Eye in the Sky is a stark reminder of the talent we’ve lost with his passing.
It may offer no real opinion on the War on Terror itself, but Eye in the Sky is a well-observed (excuse the pun), intellectually rigorous look at a necessary evil of the modern age – somewhat compromised by its play for mainstream appeal. Call it “An Alright Kill”.