After over a decade’s worth of cinema, it is now sadly evident that the War on Terror has not inspired many worthy films. From bleeding-heart dramas like In The Valley Of Elah to the fake jitterbug realism of the Bourne sequels, Hollywood’s treatment of post-9/11 wars is best-remembered for its recycling of tired Vietnam tropes and 1970s conspiracy thrillers than for its rare probes into the dystopian maze of cyclical violence and ideological conundrums these wars have locked us in.
So starved are we for genuine artistic insight on modern warfare that Eye In The Sky looks almost radical: By revolving its narrative around a single setting – an Al-Shabaab-occupied neighbourhood of Nairobi hiding radicalized British and US citizens – seen from different geopolitical perspectives in temporal unity, Gavin Hood and screenwriter Guy Hibbert choose to decline the situation into four moral vantage points whose intersections and oppositions generate drama and suspense that resonate without feeling exploitative. As the plot unfolds in quasi-real time, so too does an entire catalogue of shifting attitudes and values brought out by the ever-increasing distances between commanders, executors and targets of western martial violence.
The first of these vantage points is that of the hawk, which Colonel Katherine Powell (Helen Mirren) embodies in her every word and move, never taking her eyes off the prize even when expressing sincere concern over the amount of civilian casualties it may take to get it. In the cold steel walls of the Northwood HQ from which she supervises the operation, Powell stalks her prey through an ethical minefield where her conscience is both friend and foe, to be fought, turned or summoned for back-up depending on the circumstances.
Supporting her from London is General Frank Benson (Alan Rickman, in his last live-action performance), whose grimly logical assessments clash with UK government members and legal counsels’ concerns over legal and political ramifications. From the comfort of this second vantage point, every hypothetical corpse and every law surrounding it is like a time bomb whose recipient cannot be determined until it explodes. Alan Rickman is especially good here, responding to the endless barrage of valid objections and hypotheses like a tired grey wolf that’s grown too old to doubt a lifetime of experience but still strives to remain conciliatory and understanding of alternative viewpoints, all-too aware of the immense toll these decisions take on one’s soul. It’s an impressive, battle-weary performance made doubly poignant by the hindsight knowledge that Rickman was in the process of losing his own private battle against cancer.
The third vantage point comes from an Air Force Base in the middle of the Nevada desert, where drone operators Steve Watts (Aaron Paul) and Carrie Gershon (Phoebe Fox) experience the full weight of responsibility their job entails when unexpected developments turn them from watchdogs to wolves. As the least experienced westerners watching a screen, they are the target audience’s closest surrogates – emotionally-invested observers whose judgment is based on what they see and what they are told by authoritative sources. It’s a little regrettable then that these characters, despite Fox and Paul’s committed acting, are so simply sketched in comparison to their British counterparts – a little more screen-time might have helped.
Finally we have Kenyan field agent Jama Farah (Barkhad Abdi), whose presence on the ground gives him access to more immediate knowledge and power, yet also makes him an unintentional element of chaos. Indeed, most of the film’s dramatic shifts are guided by what he sees and does: It is through his remote-controlled beetle camera that we and diegetic fellow viewers discover last-minute preparations for an imminent suicide bombing that change the mission’s parameters, and it is his combination of bad luck and poor timing that accelerate the narrative’s march towards a painful, violent conclusion.
At the centre of these vantage points, little Alia Mo’Allim (Aisha Takow) becomes an unsuspecting focal point of Western conscience, as the stand from which she sells her parents’ bread happens to be right behind the targeted safehouse. A set-up whose somewhat paternalistic undercurrent (is there a figure in western media more exploited than that of the poor black African child?) is softened by the screenplay’s scrupulous efforts to flesh out her relationship with her family. Yet even in scenes as ordinary as her walking down her street, Gavin Hood cannot help underlining the shadow of peril that looms over her by filming her in a lateral tracking shot just slightly beneath her level.
Additionally, the screenplay deprives itself of additional moral complexity by making it absolutely clear that Alia’s family have no love for their militant overlords: After a visiting Islamist neighbour scolds her for dancing with her hula-hoop in front of him, her father privately denounces Al-Shabaab as fanatics and warns her to avoid any “incriminating” behaviour around them. It’s a well-meaning touch, but one that unconsciously assumes human worth to depend upon political affiliation. Does a civilian’s life not have inherent value regardless of whether or not they share the enemy’s ideology? Would it not have been more challenging to humanize actual terror supporters like in Steven Spielberg’s still-underrated Munich, even at the risk of reducing the amount of positive presumed Muslim characters to just Jama? By ignoring these questions, Hood and Hibbert miss an opportunity to probe our acceptance of civilian casualties even deeper.
The screenplay’s shortcomings also include questionable attempts at levity: The British Foreign Secretary (Iain Glen) is first directly contacted while sitting on the toilet due to a bout of food poisoning that caused him to abruptly conclude a speech at an arms sales deal in Singapore, while his American counterpart only authorizes the strike so he can resume his game of ping-pong in front of Chinese diplomats. While too brief to do any lasting damage, these tentative forays into satire are crude, shallow and fit very poorly in so serious an enterprise.
The editor is often joked about in filmmaking circles as an unsung hero whose choices can make the difference between a good film and a bad film. By no means does Eye In The Sky give the impression of being such a drastic case, but Megan Gill’s editing deserves every superlative in the world for its expert balance of every vantage point’s emotional and narrative stakes. Her deftness smoothes the screenplay’s imperfections and handles its continuous twists and turns with the sort of timing “purer” thrillers would kill for.
In a mainstream cinematic landscape still struggling to critically engage with its own representation of warfare, Eye In The Sky’s ingenious visual rendition of drone warfare’s ethical logistics is as impressive as its lapses in judgment are frustrating. Were it not for the occasional cliché and miscalculation, it would have the makings of a future masterpiece. Nevertheless, its dogged commitment to nuance and astute use of multiple perspectives deserve commendation, as does the totality of its cast.
Dir: Gavin Hood
Scr: Guy Hibbert
Cast: Helen Mirren, Alan Rickman, Aaron Paul, Barkhad Abdi, Aisha Tawok, Phoebe Fox, Jeremy Northam, Iain Glen
Prd: Ged Doherty, Colin Firth, David Lancaster, Claudia Bluemhuber, Benedict Carver, Cheryl Eatock, Genevieve Hofmeyr, Xavier Marchand, Anne Sheehan
DOP: Haris Zambarloukos
Music: Paul Hepler, Mark Kilian
Running time: 102 mins
Eye in the Sky is in cinemas now