Released 2015. Director: Gavin Hood
IT'S ONE THING TO KICK UP THE PACE AND RAISE THE STAKES with furious action scenes. It’s quite another to create and sustain tension from people arguing endlessly because they cannot reach a decision. Eye in the Sky is a prime example of how to make a nail-biting war movie by firing words instead of throwing grenades.
This is the premise: Joint military intelligence between the UK and US has pin-pointed the whereabouts of one of the most wanted terrorists at a house on the outskirts of Nairobi. The original mission to capture escalates to a mission to kill when surveillance shows the group inside the house is preparing for a suicide bombing. The urgency needs no emphasising. If the military doesn’t strike now, a lot of innocent people will die when the terrorists detonate their explosives at a crowded place.
But it’s not a simple matter of pulling a trigger. The chain of command to execute a kill order takes an enormously knotted route through the ranks, complicated by politics, legality and debates on the morality of bombing an ally country, collateral damage and an assortment of hurdles.
To complicate an already contentious situation, a young girl wanders into the picture, setting up a makeshift stall by the dusty road selling bread just on the other side of the wall of the house primed to blow up. Would the adults in the war room go ahead and order a drone attack? Could they live with the consequences? Shades of the classic conundrum of whether you’d choose to kill one person in order to save more. There is no win-win situation. Spare the girl, spare the terrorists; or kill the terrorists, kill the girl.
Those having a stake in this agonising struggle are scattered around the globe. Colonel Powell (Helen Mirren, determined to take out an enemy of the state, no matter the human cost) in a bunker somewhere in the English countryside; Lieutenant General Benson (Alan Rickman in his final screen performance, holding a delicate situation with solemn authority) and various government ministers and the Attorney-General in London; the British Foreign Minister on a trade stop in Singapore; drone pilot Steve Watts (Aaron Paul, fingers poised to unleash carnage) in Nevada and facial recognition personnel in Hawaii.
The volleys of back-and-forth arguments, counterpoints, justifying, rationalising and passing the buck could raise the blood pressure of those who cannot stand dithering indecisiveness, but in the right hands it makes for a tense and absorbing viewing. Rarely do we see an “action” movie powered almost entirely by verbal arsenal. The prominent amount of moral exercising is a departure from a mainstream movie about a military strike.
There is, amidst the tough talking and hand-wringing, a tense action scene on the ground. Local spy Farah (Barkhad Abdi, totally in his elements), who powers a drone into enemy territory to identify human targets, runs for cover when his identity is blown.
Not enough credit is given to editor Megan Gill, who keeps the pace brisk, at times breakneck, flashing between no fewer than six locations and keeping the ordeal on knife’s edge.
Whilst everyone tries to keep his or her hand clean, when the order is given, the missile hits the target and the mission is accomplished, modern warfare is no different from frontline battle, even though attacks are conducted with remote control from another continent. You may be removed physically but the responsibility remains real and blood still gets on your hand. Eye in the Sky is a taut moral thriller with difficult questions and no easy answer.
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