6.5 out of 10
Helen Mirren as Colonel Katherine Powell
Directed by Gavin Hood
Eye in the Sky Review:
The men and women behind the drone strikes, which have become the unfortunate symbol of the war on terror, are as unassuming and ordinary as the people who frequently become their collateral damage. They both approach their daily lives largely as matters of routine, allowing them (and us) to forget some of the real dangers surrounding us until it is almost too late.
But the world can be dangerous, it is filled with extreme people who will take extreme actions for reasons ordinary people cannot fully comprehend, and in the process force those ordinary people into extreme actions as well. It’s a process which suggests that Hannah Arendt was only half right, it’s not only evil which is banal but good also and never more so than on the battlefield.
This point of view makes a timely drama out of Eye in the Sky, whose strong performances and suspenseful editing almost make up for TV drama production quality.
Col. Katherine Powell (Mirren) and her boss (Rickman), when not dealing with snoring husbands or confusing selections of presents for grandchildren, have been hunting a radicalized British citizen turned enabler of suicide bombers and that search is finally bearing fruit. It’s that clash between the sexiness and power of military force and the ridiculousness of actual life which Sky returns to again and again, putting life and death decisions in the hands of people playing ping pong or dealing with food poisoning.
Rather than creating massive changes in tone or insulting the heavier material, the frequent dips into the absurd paint a morbidly fascinating look at how modern life and death decisions are actually made. This is the kind of work director Gavin Hood (Ender’s Game) excels at and it shows through his deft hand with his cast.
While some of the performances are one note, the ensemble itself gels together to create a more complicated emotional picture. Mirren and Rickman (in his final role) are as good we’ve come to expect, but they’re well joined by “Breaking Bad’s” Aaron Paul as the actual drone pilot who reminds what he can do with solid material. To be fair, they are also the actors most directly involved with the primary conflict and that makes a big difference.
When bad intelligence causes a proposed special forces raid to be put on hold, the only viable option becomes a drone strike on a suburban house in Nairobi where collateral damage can be estimated at best. Eye in the Sky spends the rest of its running time threading the needle between describing the world we actually live in and the one we might want to – a world where politicians and military leaders debate at length the morality and ethics of such a strike and how it will physically affect everyone nearby – and mostly gets away with it.
This is a more impressive feat than it might sound. Most of the participants are never in the same room or even the same continent, leaving emotional resonance to take place in the gaps over conference calls. Editor Megan Gill works wonders, and single-handedly becomes Hood’s most important collaborator, collapsing the distances between the actors while also keeping the action moving in near real-time, heightening both suspense and emotional impact.
It is unfortunately the same choice/requirement to limit much of Eye in the Sky to the board and control room (it does fitfully return to the Kenyan streets where Captain Phillips’ Barkhad Abdi tries to keep things from getting out of hand) which limits the film’s potential. For all the hard work Hood and Gill put into it, ultimately it’s impossible to ignore the TV-like quality of the drama, as so much of it is reduced to individuals in rooms they never leave looking intently at computer screens, searching for drama in what they can tell us is happening rather than showing.
This could actually be a suitable narrative choice for what Eye in the Sky wants to do except that it’s never clear about what it wants to do beyond show the conflict to us. While it refuses easy answers to how and when to use such impersonal and lethal force, it also refuses to take a stand or stake out a point of view beyond a generic ‘war and violence are bad’ platform.
Yes, it’s true, but it’s also so blindingly obvious there’s not much call for a film to come up with the idea. It’s easy to say Hood and compatriots would rather leave it up to the audience to decide Sky’s meaning for themselves, but that sounds less like one of the platitudes the film’s politicians would mutter while looking for someone else to make the difficult call for them.
That’s not to say there isn’t a lot to like in Eye in the Sky, there is, but none of that stops it from feeling like a really good TV movie and not much more.