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Eye in the Sky

D: Gavin Hood / 102m

Cast: Helen Mirren, Aaron Paul, Alan Rickman, Barkhad Abdi, Phoebe Fox, Aisha Takow, Jeremy Northam, Richard McCabe, Monica Dolan, Iain Glen, Babou Ceesay, Vusi Kunene, Kim Engelbrecht, Laila Robins, Michael O’Keefe, Armaan Haggio, Gavin Hood, Lex King

The poster for Eye in the Sky correctly identifies the range of personnel that are involved in its story of a military operation to capture several high profile terrorists from a property in Nairobi, Kenya. The commander is Colonel Katherine Powell (Mirren), the drone pilot is Lieutenant Steve Watts (Paul), and the terrorist is radicalised British woman Susan Danford (King). But the range doesn’t end there. There’s also military facilitator Lieutenant General Frank Benson (Rickman) overseeing things from a briefing room in London’s Whitehall, a target recognition analyst, Lucy Galvez (Engelbrecht), based in Hawaii, and the Kenyan military forces, led by Major Moses Owiti (Kunene), and also in Nairobi. Throw in the British Foreign Secretary, James Willett (Glen), who’s in Singapore, and the American Secretary of State, Ken Stanitzke (O’Keefe), who’s on a trip to Beijing, and you have a movie that relentlessly globe trots in its efforts to up the tension as the original mission to capture Danford and her terrorist allies mutates unavoidably into a strike mission.

The set up is a simple one: intel puts Danford, a member of terrorist organisation Al-Shabaab, her husband, and two recently radicalised young men at a house in Nairobi. Powell’s job is to coordinate the various strands of a US/UK/Kenyan operation to capture them. But things become more complicated when the intended targets move to another Nairobi location, one that’s heavily fortified by Somalian militia. With the drone flying twenty-three thousand feet above the action and unable to see inside the building the terrorists have moved to, the decision is made to send in an FPV, operated remotely by Jama (Abdi), a Somalian member of the Kenyan military forces. With the targets inside the building confirmed, the mission can go ahead, but then the FPV sees something no one was expecting: a room full of explosives and two suicide bomb vests. Now the reason for the terrorist meeting becomes clear: the two young men have been chosen to commit further terrorist outrages.

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For Powell it’s an open and shut case. With two separate terrorist acts being prepared, the mission has to change, and the drone used to send a Hellfire missile into the building. But Powell finds that getting permission to change the operation’s parameters  is harder than she thought. Benson, overseeing things with members of the British government, explains the need for a kill strike but no one wants to make a decision without it being referred to someone further up the chain of command. And when a young girl, Alia (Takow), arrives outside the compound to sell bread, the moral and political issues surrounding collateral damage come into play – and the terrorists continue their plans.

Make no mistake, Eye in the Sky is a taut, gripping thriller that throws in enough twists and turns to keep viewers on the edge of their seat (or holding their breath) from the moment the terrorists’ plan becomes evident and the politicians start backing away from making a decision that involves the potential death of a young girl. With ethical and moral considerations being thrown around in support of both pushing ahead and stepping down, Guy Hibbert’s script treads a fine line between political expediency and military necessity, and in doing so, provides audiences with a tense, anxious experience that is both intelligently handled and uncomfortably topical.

In doing so though it paints a portrait of UK politicians as indecisive and media-cowed, afraid of making tough decisions unless they’re authorised by someone nearer the top of the political food chain than they are (this is why the UK Foreign Secretary and the US Secretary of State become involved). It’s a little unnerving to see these characters vacillate so much in the face of an established threat, and some viewers may well find themselves feeling frustrated by their behaviour to the point of wishing they were the victims of the drone strike instead. But it still makes for compelling viewing as each round of political manoeuvring fails to solve the problem on the ground, namely, how  can the little girl be moved on, and how can any collateral damage be minimised to an acceptable level.

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The answers to both these dilemmas are not as cut and dried as some viewers might expect. An attempt to buy up the girl’s bread goes awry, and the level of collateral damage varies depending on where the missile strike hits, but in any case it’s obvious the girl will suffer some form of injury. Knowing this, the back and forth between Powell and the politicians Benson has to deal with becomes an arduous, unpleasant, exasperating stretch of the movie’s running time, and despite feeling contrived for the most part, still maintains the tension needed to keep viewers glued to the screen.

Away from the Brits, Watts’s increasing unhappiness at the way things are developing leads to a further delay in proceedings, but the movie presents this as a positive turn of events, with the plucky Yank standing up to the formidable British Colonel. Whether this would happen in “real life” is debatable – Watts and his co-pilot, Carrie Gershon (Fox) appear far too emotionally affected to be entirely credible – but as another example of the script’s ability to make things as uncomfortable for the audience as possible it also gives the audience a way in in terms of how upsetting this must really be for two characters who will be expected to be back on duty twelve hours later. Alternatively, Powell and Benson’s feelings are best summed up by Benson’s assertion, “Never tell a soldier that he does not know the cost of war.”

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With drone strikes becoming an increasingly hot topic in terms of modern warfare against terrorists, the movie is both timely and uncompromising. It paints a convincing portrait of the hardware used and the complicity that comes with it, and if the movie ultimately comes down on the side of using it for the greater good – the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few – then it’s still a convincingly made argument. And thanks to a very well chosen cast, both sides of that argument are given due attention, with Mirren and Rickman giving standout performances, while being ably supported by the likes of Abdi, Northam and Ceesay. In coordinating all this, Hood makes up for Ender’s Game (2013) and X-Men Origins: Wolverine (2009) by keeping things deadly serious throughout, and with the help of regular editor Megan Gill, creates a febrile atmosphere for the mission to exist in.

Rating: 8/10 – a few narrative niggles aside, Eye in the Sky is a provocative, unnerving cinematic experience that never once falters in its intention to keep viewers on the edge of their seats; tense and dramatic, the movie shines a light on the kind of ethical and moral dilemmas that only a select few have to deal with, and reinforces the notion that warfare, whether modern or ancient, is not for the faint of heart.