War and Morality Create Inner Conflicts in ‘Eye in the Sky’

CHICAGO – Eye in the Sky is an excellent, compelling film about our current condition of drone warfare, but it also may be best remembered as the final appearance of the great actor, Alan Rickman. He gets a proper sendoff as a buttoned-down general acting as a liaison between his military staff and the unctuous British and American leadership. Rickman will be missed, and screenwriter Guy Hibbert gave him a perfect last line.

Also admirable about the film is how it emphasizes the human element in controlling the drones (and their payload), the decision process around the use of the drone payload (bureaucratic) and the innocent victims around the target. Director Gavin Hood uses a visual style that is point-of-view and voyeuristic, from the angle of the various cameras, and fashions a story that is a modern version of the 1964 film, Fail-Safe. Whether it’s the nuclear brink or the decision to kill innocents from a drone to stop a perceived terrorist threat, the old Army saying of Situation Normal All Fucked Up (SNAFU) applies for the film.

Aaron Paul in 'Eye In the Sky' Image: Bleecker Street Media

Aaron Paul in ‘Eye In the Sky’ Image: Bleecker Street Media

British Military Intelligence, led by a drone spy camera operation controlled by Americans in Nevada, has discovered five of their most wanted terrorists holed up in Nairobi, Kenya. Colonel Katherine Powell (Helen Mirren), the facilitator of the British division, wants to strike. But she has to get approval through her liaison – General Frank Benson (Alan Rickman) – who is in an oak paneled office with representatives from the British government, waiting to get the proper clearance to complete the mission.

The problem is that the target is a house in the middle of a public vendor square, and the closest innocent to the target is a child selling bread. The Kenyan ground agent, Jama Farah (Barkhad Abdi), is doing his best to intervene, but he has been recognized by the heavily armed militia keeping peace in the area. As the minutes tick down, officials as high as the American Secretary of State and the British Prime Minister have to decide between a potential terrorist event and the life of a child.

I immediately thought of Fail-Safe when I was watching the film, but remarkably director Gavin Hood told me in an interview that he’d never seen that 1960s military thriller. Eye in the Sky has the same themes of military versus government, bureaucrats versus pragmatists, and technology versus emotion in overseeing our human capacity for compassion in war. The actors are in a morality play, emphasized most by the drone pilot (Aaron Paul) who actually has to drop the payload. The debate and the military frustration regarding the assignment is one of the most absorbing elements of the film, and reminds us of the checks and balances necessary in warfare, but still it’s SNAFU.

On the surface, it’s hard to imagine Dame Helen Mirren as a colonel in British Intelligence, but damn, she pulls it off so well that she disappears into the role. It takes her gravitas – think of the persona she has in the Budweiser commercial about drunk driving – to create tension in the situation. She wants to perform the military task she’d been working on for years, and barely up-to-date politicians are standing in her way. That is all in her performance.

The screenplay by Guy Hibbert is excellent, there is not a bit of fat on it. He and director Gavin Hood combine to create a back-and-forth ping pong ball of decision-making, that is both frustrating and necessary. Most interesting are the aerial views of the scene, as Hood would cut from ground level and normal narrative to the computer info-bordered drone shots, or more remarkably, a tiny camera disguised as a bug. There is no doubt this technology exists.

Helen Mirren in 'Eye In the Sky' Image: Bleecker Street Media

Helen Mirren in ‘Eye In the Sky’ Image: Bleecker Street Media

The supporting cast is uniformly superior. Barkhad Abdi, the Somali-American actor who was nominated for Best Supporting Actor for Captain Phillips, takes his role as the agent closest to the bomb zone with such authority that he nearly stole the movie – but ultimately no one could out-steal Alan Rickman. Knowing that it is his last role gave his appearances a sense of finality that adds a tremendous weight to his every word, including a perfect last line. It is a crucial and necessary elegy for the Rickman “character,” and the essential actor.

We live in a age of no reason, clinging to a gravitational rock that has evolved into a geopolitical game of who-can-get-what. Within that emotion, it makes sense that the game of war has evolved into a bunch of idiots in a boardroom, talking to a guy in Nevada who is about to bomb Kenya. SNAFU, baby!

Bleecker Street Media Presents Eye in the Sky, in theaters now. Featuring Helen Mirren, Alan Rickman, Aaron Paul, Armaan Haggio, Barkhad Abdi and Jeremy Northam. Written by Guy Hibbert. Directed by Gavin Hood. Rated “R”