Eye in the Sky

Alan Rickman's final film is part military thriller, part bureaucratic farce.
Sarah Ward
March 27, 2016


Welcome to the new breed of combat movies. In Eye in the Sky, soldiers fight terrorists from the comfort of their desks, while the bulk of the people debating which course of action to take, and even those actually carrying out the strike, aren't on the front lines, but watching on from other continents.

Their task is seemingly simple: apprehend two extremist ringleaders in Kenya. In the UK, Colonel Katherine Powell (Helen Mirren) oversees operations, with her mission changing from a capture to a kill when she discovers a suicide attack may be imminent. On the ground in Nairobi, undercover agent Jama Farah (Barkhad Abdi) spies on the culprits, manoeuvring an insect-sized camera into their safe house. His aren't the only images of the scene, with two Las Vegas-based drone pilots (Aaron Paul and Phoebe Fox) looking on with their fingers on the trigger. But when a nine-year-old girl (Aisha Takow) wanders into the target zone, Powell is forced to seek advice from her superiors, including the supportive Lieutenant General Frank Benson (Alan Rickman) and a raft of indecisive politicians worried about the potential ramifications.

The mechanics and morality of war are the movie's main concerns — and while many a cinematic dissection of conflict has probed the same topic, director Gavin Hood (Ender's Game) has crafted a film that's purely a product of its time. Technology is key, both in the way the story unfolds for the characters, and the way it is presented to the audience. Powell and the majority of her colleagues observe matters from the safety of their own countries, yet can take lives at the press of a button. Viewers share the same position, and see the same intercut spy cam, drone and satellite footage — though they can only watch on with a combination of horror, anxiety and flabbergasted amusement, unable to intervene or do more.

Indeed, Eye in the Sky is designed to inspire many a question, and leave everyone pondering the various troubling answers. That it succeeds isn't simply a result of the film's intelligent approach to its subject, but of its tone: part military thriller, part bureaucratic farce. Viewers will find themselves inching towards the edge of their seats, even as they chuckle grimly as yet another person in power tries to avoid making a hard decision. There's no ducking the films more heavy-handed elements, including an intrusive score, conveniently increasing stakes, and the blatant attempt to evoke an emotional reaction by placing a child in peril. But there's also no avoiding its effectiveness, both in contemplating a difficult subject and constructing an exercise in tension.

The considered mood Mirren brings to her pivotal role proves the perfect weathervane for the film's fortunes, and of the way in which it achieves its aims. She's the movie's robust centre, brimming with as much texture as toughness. Among the rest of the cast, Paul plays his part with the right amount of worry and uncertainty, while the late Rickman's trademark wry charm gets a fitting final outing. Given the intensity of the situation that surrounds them, that they provide the complex feature with convincing portrayals is no small feat.


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