Movie Review: Eye in the Sky

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An international operation to find and kill terrorists is put in jeopardy when the planned drone strike may have civilian casualties.

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Gavin Hood, 2015

Across the world, various military personnel meet in preparation for an operation to take out a highly desirable military target. In England, the operation leader Colonel Powell (Helen Mirren) gathers her team, including risk assessor Sergeant Saddiq (Babou Ceesay), and gives instructions to various operators in different countries, including drone pilots Steve Watts (Aaron Paul) and Carrie Gershon (Phoebe Fox) in Las Vegas and spy Jama Farah (Barkhad Abdi) on the ground in Kenya. A group of British politicians has been gathered to oversee the operation, including military liaison Lieutenant General Benson. The initial operation, a drone attack on an isolated house in Kenya, begins to go awry when the key targets leave the house and head to a more populated area. The risk assessor identifies a blast zone – and before they can strike, little Alia (Aisha Takow) wanders right into it. The stakes are raised as an ethical dilemma presents itself to everyone involved: do they strike, preventing several potential deaths with an almost certain innocent death?

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Eye in the Sky should be a very powerful, effective movie that stays with the viewer for a long time. It’s relevant, with a troubling concept, about an emotionally charged subject. It has many fine actors putting in good performances, and it looks good. So why does it fall short? In essence, it’s the British stoicism of the film that lets it down. The whole thing is approached with a wry intellectualism. The cuts between different locations happen too quickly for us to settle with a character, and we know too little about most of them to care about them. Only Alia and her family are given a full introduction, which is how you instantly know exactly how their story is going to end. There are some really nice notes with her family, too – the film refuses to take an overly cliched route, establishing the dangerous misogyny of the environment through small cues that Alia recognises, but doesn’t fully comprehend. If that kind of care had been taken with other major players, this could have been a fully emotionally engaging movie. Alan Rickman gets a humorous introduction, which benefits his character greatly. He’s wonderful in the movie, a fitting final role for the great actor – he gets to be both funny and heartfelt. Aaron Paul’s character is little more than a cypher until he makes a major emotional decision, and it’s through his acting more than any writing or direction that we finally make a connection with his important character. A little more American sensationalism and sentimentality would have really benefited the movie.

Helen Mirren gets to be ruthless and unlikeable as Colonel Powell, but we know almost nothing about her. She is ostensibly the main character of the movie, the driving force behind it, but we don’t really get a full sense of her character until the very end. Most of the characters are introduced in their home lives, but there’s such a deep, purposeful sense of the mundaneness of that everyday life pervading the movie. It’s clearly meant to contradict this major ethical dilemma they face at work, but it also means that we don’t get a sense of who they all are. The film has almost too light a touch. Some of the funnier moments work well, and the bureaucracy of the decision – each character trying to pass off responsibility to the next person, then the next, so that they don’t have to make a decision with major consequences – has a certain dark humour about it. It’s a very interesting, very real take on such an incredibly pertinent real-world issue. There are questions of drone warfare to contend with, the pilots safe in a US bunker while a spy risks his life on the ground in Kenya (and Barkhad Abdi is very good in this film). But those questions aren’t delved into enough, which detracts from the film overall. It’s an interesting, relevant endeavour, but if it fails to engage its audience, what’s it all for? Trading off emotion for reason in a fiction film created for entertainment fails to inspire.

Eye in the Sky on IMDb

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