A Film Review by Akash Singh
NOTE: SPOILERS OCCUR!!!!!!!
The War on Terror has created an entirely new paradigm of warfare and drone strikes have become the war’s signature motif. It’s a ubiquitous motif, its capacity to kill from distances that seemingly grow farther and farther away raising significant questions that have to be answered. Those questions are difficult and the sheer difficulty of answering those questions form the thematic backbone of Gavin Hood’s Eye in the Sky. The primary argument in favor of the drone program is that it maximizes efficiency while minimizing collateral damage, a phrase that in and of itself has become thoroughly chilling as a euphemism that often tends to wipe out the individuals who are the victims of the policy. That primary argument is far from a certain fact, however, and one doesn’t even have to go into all of the consequences drone strikes leave in their wake to understand that. One simply has to recognize that that simplicity and ease simply doesn’t exist. The efficiency of drone strikes are inherently questionable because there isn’t ever a clear cut choice to their usage, no matter to which extent one creates rationalizations in their favor. There is always that question mark, regardless of whether it is specifically marked towards individuals, politics, or goals. Whichever side of the question mark an individual falls towards, insinuating that the question mark in and of itself doesn’t exist is callous and above all, cruel. That cruelty also assumes a cause and effect relationship that is a naive understanding of political complexities as political realities are rarely ever straightforward and or stagnant to begin with. There is always an undercurrent of complexity to these issues that have begun to be more thoroughly explored in mainstream fictional entertainment to carrying degrees of complexity (Showtime’s Homeland comes to mind in terms of achieving at least a demonstration of grasping the issues, even if it doesn’t fulfill its absolute potential that it itself presents to the audience). Eye in the Sky, while imperfect, is a notable installment in this narrative genre.
Eye in the Sky opens with a quiet sequence centering on a young girl named Alia Mo’Allim (a terrific Aisha Takow) playing with her hula hoop that her father had built in their backyard. The family is thoroughly impoverished, making the best of their existence in a Nairobi neighborhood controlled by members of Al-Shabaab. The family is clearly not enamored with the fanatics they must contend with on a daily basis, but there is hardly an abundance of choices being presented to them. They find a quiet way to persevere and the father in the privacy of the family allows for moments of quiet freedom to his daughter that he knows would place their family in immense trouble otherwise. Young Alia covers herself up before taking the bread her mother bakes and selling it on the market for fifty shillings, which equals about forty-nine cents per loaf. She gathers her money quietly in her purse before walking back home where her father repairs bicycles for a living. It’s a quiet life, as quiet as one could make it under those circumstances but it’s an honest one that is about to be torn asunder simply because of where they live. It is thoroughly critical for the film to present the lives of the individuals who live in areas targeted by drone strikes so they don’t yet continue to become another number added to the kill count. Without that individual, human focus, it’s easy to choose the “80” over the “1” because you never have to look that “1” in the eye and realize that you’re condemning them to death. There are circumstances nevertheless where even that doesn’t deter someone from their path and that desensitization is thoroughly deplorable in its display in which some of the individuals tasked with making the decision to launch a Hellfire missile strike to have been exposed to so many of these scenarios that they’ve dialed their decisions towards a calculus of lesser collateral damage. It is difficult to argue with some of their logic, but at a certain point some individuals have to rise above the analytical calculus to see the human picture as Monica Dolan’s (Wolf Hall) Angela Northman does so ardently.
A significant strength of Eye in the Sky’s also gives way towards its greatest weakness. The film as a whole could be easily classified as a procedural and a thriller. Both aspects give the film a feeling of authenticity and excitement respectively but the procedural aspect specifically makes the film lag at junctures. That lagging in part is deliberate because the mundane nature of what is occurring jars notable against what the mission is at hand. Eye in the Sky draws some strong thematic notes from that clash of tones, but it doesn’t balance them as a film as well as it was capable of. There are some derivative notes, such as the wall of suspects made infamous by Homeland’s Carrie Mathieson and the third act plot point of the battery loss, both of which make sense to some degree but nevertheless feel tacked on. The performances are excellent all around. Helen Mirren is fantastic in a role that is often not reserved for women and her steely demeanor guides the audience through her choices. Barkhad Abdi is thoroughly gripping as a man trying to find out Al Shabaab terrorists while undercover in a neighborhood they control. It is extremely bittersweet to see Alan Rickman in this film, especially as his last piece of dialogue was the last he ever spoke for a film. The film’s grasp on the legal and political ramifications of decision involving targeted drone assassinations, as nascent as the grasp may be, is firm enough to craft a solid study of this ubiquitous facet of modern-day warfare. The study itself and the film that envelops it, however, is going to have diminishing returns the more an individual actually knows about the issues at hand. For someone trying to understand the complexities of drone warfare, Eye in the Sky is a good dramatic beginner’s guide but otherwise the film is on a sliding scale towards being thoroughly rudimentary the more a member of the audience can pinpoint exactly where the film’s script is lacking depth and detail due to their own knowledge. Eye in the Sky is nevertheless an intelligent beginner’s opening into a terrifying world that feels as alien as it is a reality, a world whose consequences seem so removed but are oh, so real.
Title: Eye in the Sky
MPAA Rating: R
Directed by: Gavin Hood
Produced by: Ged Doherty, Colin Firth, David Lancaster
Written by: Guy Hibbert
Starring: Helen Mirren, Aaron Paul, Alan Rickman, Barkhad Abdi, Jeremy Northam, Iain Glen
Music by: Paul Hepker, Mark Kilian
Cinematography by: Haris Zambarloukos
Edited by: Megan Gill
Production Company(s): Entertainment One, Raindog Films
Distributed by: Entertainment One
Running Time: 102 minutes
Release Dates: 8 April 2016 (United Kingdom)
Image Courtesy: The Conversation
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