A film review by Craig J. Koban April 7, 2016


2016, R, 102 mins.


Helen Mirren as Colonel Katherine Powell  /  Aaron Paul as Steve Watts  /  Alan Rickman as Lieutenant General Frank Benson  /  Iain Glen as Foreign Secretary James Willett  /  Barkhad Abdi as Jama Farah  /  Phoebe Fox as Carrie Gershon  /  Kim Engelbrecht as Lucy Galvez  /  Jeremy Northam as Brian Woodale  /  Meganne Young as Lizzy  /  Carl Beukes as Sergeant Mike Gleeson

Directed by Gavin Hood  /  Written by Guy Hibbert

Much like 2015’s terribly underrated and little seen GOOD KILL, Gavin Hood’s methodically unnerving and thematically absorbing EYE IN THE SKY is a thriller that channels suspense not from cookie cutter action sequences, per se, but rather with its deliberate and agonizingly prolonged pacing.  

Both films deal with the whole thorny moral and political debate regarding drone warfare, but whereas Andrew Niccol honed his focus on the mental toll it took on an individual pilot, Hood’s film deals with multiple players – high ranking government and military personnel from different nations and the drone pilots themselves – and the battle of wits that they wage against themselves for what they all see as “the greater good.”  Timely, well executed, wonderfully acted, and chillingly thought provoking, EYE IN THE SKY is about a different type of war – the one fought in strategy rooms and over conference calls. 

The film poses ageless ethical questions at viewers without actually answering them: How much is one life worth in modern warfare?  Is one life – in this film’s case, that of an innocent child – worth sacrificing if it means immediately eradicating multiple terrorist threats that, in turn, will murder hundreds, if not thousands, of other innocent civilians with future suicide bombs?  On a level of delving into such problematic battlefield conundrums, EYE IN THE SKY is positively riveting.  It’s also a film that really understands how drone warfare is arguably the least intimate kind of warfare, but one that nevertheless can cause such lethal damage and a massive amount of casualties within a blink of an eye…and some involving, yes, innocent civilians.  Even though drone pilots don’t literally kill their targets on the battlefield (they do so from thousands of miles away via their remote controlled actions), when they’re about to pull their triggers they're certainly cognizant of the fact that they are about to end multiple human lives…some evil and some good.  



EYE IN THE SKY is careful, though, when it comes to any type of commentary on the intended targets of the possible drone strikes in its story.  These men are indeed terrorists and are set to slaughter countless others, leaving nothing up to question or debate regarding their motives.  They’re corrupted evildoers.  Pure and simple.  Planning their eminent bombing attack from a small house in a village from Kenya, these terrorists don’t realize that they’re being tracked by a coalition of American, Kenyan, and British governmental agents.  Using ultra-sophisticated surveillance tech – and drones – the military side of the operation is under the power of Colonel Catherine Powell (a wonderfully cast against type Helen Mirren), who in turn takes her orders from Lt. General Benson (the late Alan Rickman, in one of his last film roles).  The drone pilots themselves  – Steve Watts (Aaron Paul, refreshingly a long way removed from his Jesse Pinkman persona on BREAKING BAD here) and Carrie Gershon (Phoebe Fox) – are located in Las Vegas and are sworn to expedite any kill orders given to them by their commanders and Colonel Powell.  Alongside General Benson are his country’s top political aids to the Prime Minister, whom are all in constant touch with the US Secretary of State, aiming to ensure that every legal grey area in launching their mission is dealt with.  

One thing is for absolute certain: the terrorists are strapping on explosive vests and will be undertaking a terrible plot to set them off…somewhere…and soon.  This is clearly revealed in the planted hidden camera strategically placed within their headquarters.  Powell rightfully believes that a drone must be sent in to terminate these targets immediately and swiftly.  Just when it appears that every power that be agrees with such a course of action, a little girl sets up a bread selling stand right at the doorstep of the terrorists’ location…and business is terrible…and she’s not about to move anytime soon.  This throws everyone back in the US and the UK into a state of argumentative panic.  The drone pilots back in Vegas want nothing to do with indiscriminately killing a child, whereas Colonel Powell and Lt General Benson are all for it, citing what the terrorist will do if let go.  When American and British lawyers start contemplating the legal fallout of such an action, it stalls the drone attack even further…and the terrorists are achingly closer by the minute to leaving their HQ. 

EYE IN THE SKY is almost more of a political thriller than a warfare one, and that’s a good thing.  Hood and screenwriter Guy Hibbert craft a stirring and lingering sense of claustrophobic intensity in simply showing how the convoluted the final decision making process can be for launching drone attacks with questionable fallout.  Intriguingly, the concern over the death of that poor child segues more into a lengthy argument from all sides as to the legality of “potentially” killing the girl as a result of exterminating the terrorists.  What builds everything up to such a fever-induced level of unease in EYE IN THE SKY is how frustratingly slow the entire political and military process is for finally giving the kill order to the drone pilots, especially when many of the high ranking officials “pass the buck” of responsibility forward so they themselves won't have to assume full responsibility.  The film also ponders an even darker possible underbelly to the drone attack: If successful and the girl dies, what if footage of it leaked on social media?  Would the terrorists then win the propaganda war?  It’s a small miracle that any of these men and women engaged in such discussions don’t lose their sanity altogether in the process. 

The remarkable level of measured pathos in the film is finely handled by Hood throughout, but he’s also blessed with equally refined and poised performances by his stellar ensemble cast.  Mirren perhaps has the most challenging role in the film as her fiercely combative Colonel that’s willing to bend any rule – large or small – in order to complete her mission while simultaneously displaying an internalized level of remorse and consideration for the young girl that may lose her life as a result of her actions.  She’s calm spoken, cold and ruthless, but not without compassion either.  Aaron Paul is terrific in some key scenes that rely on him relaying a tremendous whirlwind of emotional conflict within his own character in mostly stationary and tight close-ups.  And then there’s Alan Rickman, whose recent death and stalwart performance in this film reminds viewers of what a Herculean thespian talent the movie world has lost.  This military man has seen war in his life from both vantage points – the battlefield and the conference room – and when he’s taken to task late in the film regarding his perceived dispassionate stance on drone warfare, he delivers one of the most quietly uttered, but powerfully solemn monologues of recent memory about why no one should ever, ever question a soldier’s perception of death in war.  It’s a painstakingly written and consummately performed moment that actually makes you radically re-evaluate this man’s seemingly hard-line approach to everything that he confronted before in the film. 

EYE IN THE SKY respects audience members a lot more than most modern thrillers.  The film appreciates their attention spans and relative intelligence in allowing them to patiently and observantly go on the journey of a polarizing story…and it does so without sheepishly cradling their sensibilities.  One important take away that I was certainly left with after seeing the film was the curious lack of due process that’s somewhat inherent in drone warfare.  Do these countries have the right to kill terrorists (some of them being American and British citizens) in the blink of an eye – and possibly kill others in the process that were not intentional targets?  EYE IN THE SKY concludes with Powell and Benson departing after their day at work, and it all seems…well…like just another day at the office.  

And that’s kind of disturbing. 

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