Eye in the Sky is the first great movie of 2016 and coming so close after all the Oscar race releases is a welcome treat. More than just a drone strike film it is a multi-layered film about the implications and realities of modern warfare traversing the globe and giving an intimate account from various points of view including military, civilian and political.
In Nairobi, Kenya a young family starts their day like any other. The father Musa Mo’Allim played by Armaan Haggio goes about running his business in his front yard and his wife puts bread in their wood fire oven to later be sold while their only daughter Alia (Aisha Takow) plays nearby. The story covering one day will take us around the world, to military bunkers in England, corridors of power in Washington and Whitehall, airbases in Nevada, comms stations in Hawaii, trade shows in the Far East. But all eyes will be on Nairobi and a handful of blocks that show terrorists and a girl selling bread on a street corner.
Helen Mirren leads an all-star cast as military intelligence officer Colonel Katherine Powell who has been tracking these terrorists for years and is leading an operation to have them captured by local Kenyan forces while providing the eye in the sky. The drone is operated by pilots remotely in Las Vegas by 2nd Lieutenant Steve Watts (Aaron Paul) and Airwoman Carrie Gershon (Phoebe Fox). When the mission’s nature changes Powell must confirm facts on the ground with Kenyan undercover agent Hama Farah (Barkhad Abdi) and get approval from political authorities on both sides of the Atlantic via Lieutenant General Frank Benson played by the late great Alan Rickman.
Early on the Kenyan family’s details seem calculated by the filmmakers to create sympathy. For example Alia is revealed to be learning how to read by her father who is obviously not supportive of the local rulers and their ways referring to them as ‘extremists’. Ultimately though these details ultimately feed into the ideas of the film and Aisha Takow is so good in her performance we become emotionally involved.
The film also has a sly sense of humour whether it is generals ordering dolls for granddaughters or Foreign Secretaries taking important calls while suffering food poisoning. The political characters are also funny in their defiance to push decision making upstairs while a military situation escalates in real time. That is not to say every joke is at their expense, some compelling points are made by these characters too. The cast is uniformly great, it is a particular delight to see Barkhad Abdi getting to play a heroic role, but it is Helen Mirren who pulls it all together playing many notes as Powell from cool authority, manipulation to thoughtfulness watching a threat halfway around the world. This is a military officer not without a heart but certainly with a mission.
This is not a film against the advent of new military technology, bemoaning collateral damage or questioning foreign policy. The screenplay, a brilliant piece of work by Guy Hibbert, is full of small observances and neat contradictions holding true to personal points of view and yet mindful of more far reaching consequences. It is a court room drama before the fact and invites the audience to be the jury.
General Benson tells his political masters at one point that he’s been on the ground at five bombings with the bodies, concluding “Never tell a soldier they don’t know the cost of war.” And yet we look at two USAF members who may know the cost of war but who have never been on the ground with the bodies. At one point a politician takes off his jacket and we see he has been sweating very heavily, miles away from any danger he is still under stress and carefully weighing potential life and death decisions. Conversely Col Powers who will have the most to answer for from a bad decision is ice cool throughout. Missiles hovering high in the sky waiting for civilians at trade deals to come and answer their phones. Boys selling cheap plastic buckets to act as a cover story for an agent while he operates multi-million dollar miniature drones to fly inside a house. Bread in a wood fired oven potentially being a death sentence. Gavin Hood’s film powerfully conveys a brave new world with the same old truths of human nature. We want to raise our children in peace, go to work, come home and see them playing in our yards. But war has always existed and people die in wars.
P.S. For a more detailed review by me check out my main page here.