War movies are their own genre and have devoted fans in every generation. Perhaps combat films help us empathize and support our soldiers, make the war more ‘real,’ or show us the horror in the hope that we can put an end to that level of conflict. I doubt that but I am an eternal optimist. Make no mistake, EYE IN THE SKY is a war movie filled with anguish, empathy and horror. Yet it is a wholly different kind of war – the “new” war – and it is more surreal, detached and brutal than you could ever imagine.
A British national has become a radicalized Muslim and married a man affiliated with Boko Haram. Searching over a 6 year period for her is Colonel Katherine Powell of the British armed forces played with an unwavering steely certainty by the ever morphing Helen Mirren. Having received intelligence that the subject of her pursuit will be in her sights near Nairobi, a capture mission is initiated. Watching this unfold is a web of participants spanning the globe from Hawaii, to Las Vegas, Nairobi, and London where, in the safety and comfort of a wood paneled conference room, sits Lt. General Frank Benson and 4 British politicians. Benson is played by the late Alan Rickman in what would be his last on-screen role (we can look forward to his magnificent timeless voice in ALICE THROUGH THE LOOKING GLASS arriving at the cusp of the summer blockbuster season this May). As the mission proceeds each step of the process is complicated by new information, challenges and ethical, political, and tactical decisions to make.
With very little actual bloodshed we watch and wait, paralyzed by the magnitude of choosing a path – any path – for one does not exist without tremendous cost to the player’s psyches, objectives and countries. How do you weigh the sacrifices which may come as a result of a strike? Who is the ‘least bad’ sacrifice? Can we justify one possible death to prevent many more? Like a pyramid turned upside-down on its point, every new piece of information makes the endeavor bigger, heavier and increasingly more unstable – on the brink of collapse. No ‘right’ answer exists. Rickman is a controlled conductor whereas Mirren is a calculating and unstoppable force of action. Because her character is a female it feels fresh as military aggression is so often seen as a solely male trait. I would hate to be on her team, and yet, you know she would keep you alive.
On the ground so to speak are our trigger man played by Aaron Paul and master of surveillance in Nairobi, Barkhad Abdi (CAPTAIN PHILLIPS). Paul shows none of the twitchy volatility of his character Jesse in BREAKING BAD. He is the all American soldier, innocent and compliant. He, more than anyone, is connected to the immediate effects of any military action and his performance feels real and authentic. Maneuvering a super cool insect drone is Abdi who continues to hold the screen with his sharply memorable face and dynamic energy. Abdi is both menacing and trustworthy and he has a truly captivating screen presence.
While the film has only brief sequences outside of the closed, dark spaces which comprise the majority of the 102 minutes, director Gavin Hood (X-MEN ORIGINS: WOLVERINE) has crafted a set of environments which both contain us but provide us with the massive scope of modern warfare. The film could potentially be a stage play with great results. Most of the film is tinged with the cool harsh light of computer monitors and military neutrals, which enliven the colors of Nairobi all the more. Beyond this being Rickman’s last film it is a role made for him; A quiet immovable choreographer, who delivers the film’s most powerful line as no one else could. Hood has presented multiple points of view with balance and respect, and most importantly no emotional manipulation. In the end it is that equanimity which cuts us to our core. EYE IN THE SKY is an important film, an honestly emotional film, as we move farther and farther from the results of our actions, never risking being bathed in blood but spilling just as much.(4 / 5)
Director: Gavin Hood
Cast: Helen Mirren, Alan Rickman, Aaron Paul, Barkhad Abdi, Aisha Takow, Phoebe Fox
Running Time: 102 minutes
EYE IN THE SKY Movie Review