Eye in the Sky
Director - Gavin Hood
Cast - Helen Mirren, Alan Rickman, Aaron Paul, Barkhad Abdi
Rating - 4.5/5
In 1993, Steven Spielberg introduced us to one of the most powerful anti-war symbols ever put on screen. Amidst all the chaos and heartlessness of the Second World War was the girl in red, an innocent reminder of how there could still be hope despite the tragedy of war. The soul of Eye in the Sky, the new film by Gavin Hood, is another girl in red – and even though decades have passed since Schindler’s List, we find that not much has changed. The world is still at war. It never stopped.
It isn’t easy to forget the first time you see the ‘Collateral Murder’ drone footage that Chelsea Manning leaked to Julian Assange. I was reminded of Schindler’s List. But this time the image that erupted in my head wasn’t the girl in red. It was Amon Goeth, shooting down innocent Jews with casual depravity in his heart and a smirk on his face. Modern drone warfare is perhaps an update of Goeth, where war is waged from a distance – a distance that brings a sense of security to the powerful. Because of it, they think they can get away with horrific crimes in the name of greater good.
Eye in the Sky, I am pleased to inform you, is a minor classic. It is a magnificently crafted little film with huge ideas. It is one of those rare movies that does not let a modest budget get in the way of pure ambition.
In a house in Nairobi is a group of high value targets, the most valuable of which is a British born woman, recently radicalised, armed and dangerous. The mission is to capture her with minimal collateral damage. In Las Vegas, Aaron Paul plays a drone pilot. In London, Alan Rickman’s General Benson is tasked with coordinating the operation. Helen Mirren’s Colonel Katherine Powell is in a subterranean bunker in Surrey – she is in charge of the mission.
An on-the-ground spy camera reveals that the targets are preparing for a suicide attack in the house. Suddenly, capturing them is no longer a viable option. They need to be killed. Helen Mirren gives Aaron Paul the order.
The girl in red lives next door to that house. Every morning, she takes homemade bread and sells it just outside the wall separating her house from that of the terrorists. As if on cue, she sets up shop just as Colonel Powell gives the command. Aaron Paul spots her and in the film’s first moral decision, decides to abort the attack.
And so begins an unusually intelligent, tightly written, master class in suspense moviemaking. The morality play puts every character to the test. They know that the girl will likely die if they carry on with the mission, but is her life worth the countless others that could potentially be at harm if the suicide attack isn’t stopped in time?
None of the characters addresses the situation in the same way. Arguments are heard and decisions are taken. Sometimes these decisions are manipulated. Like 12 Angry Men, Eye in the Sky is the story of people trapped in rooms. They will not leave their prisons until a consensus has been reached.
The entire movie plays out in one extended scene. Our characters will never meet each other in person but after the day is done, it feels as if they know each other intimately. Some, like Aaron Paul’s pilot and his partner, who happens to be on her first day at the job, have never even been part of an attack before. Blind chance brought their fates crashing together.
Eye in the Sky is a passionately anti-war film that wisely chooses not to focus its target on one particular war. Like its characters, the enemies are also isolated in a room. Despite the political commentary it is making about accountability and the grounded vision of modern espionage it is portraying, it is a deeply human drama.
Films like these are made by their writing and performances. Anchoring it all here is Helen Mirren, the only character who makes purely rational decisions. She has the look of a veteran who has seen it all. It’s impossible to understand how long it took her to keep the emotion at bay, but she manages to hold on, despite the flicker of hesitation that always clouds her eyes when a difficult situation presents itself. Aaron Paul, on the other hand, is the perfect foil to her character. It is a similar dynamic that the show he made his name on – Breaking Bad – explored. Jesse Pinkman’s raw emotion was always the perfect foil to Walter White’s cold rationality.
Every moment Alan Rickman is on screen he absolutely demands your attention. We’ve always known just how penetrating Rickman’s delivery can be, but it’s almost as if he saved his best for last. This is as good a send-off the late actor could have asked for. His character’s final moments in the film almost spell out ‘goodbye.’
The film is directed by Gavin Hood, the South African filmmaker who, after winning an Oscar for Tsotsi, went on to make the worst movie in the X-Men franchise with X-Men Origins: Wolverine. This is his redemption. He has created a near-perfect thriller that culminates with one of the most tightly-wound scenes you’re going to see this year.
He puts the girl in red in peril - the limbo in which she perpetually finds herself. And he tries his absolute best to save her. The rest is up to his characters.
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Watch the trailer here