Monday, 28 March 2016

Movie Review: Eye In The Sky (2016)



With modern advents in the field of military technology, officers are capable of making even more precise strikes on their enemies with an even better understanding of how much (if any) collateral damage will follow. Now, under normal circumstances, this would only serve to make their job easier and disconnect them even further from their actions through the use of UAVs. But that’s a pretty major problem when you are able to perceive so damn much: You are also looking at everything that could possibly go wrong and, when dealing with something as sensitive as the use of drones in combat, there’s an awful lot that can go wrong. One degree off from the target, one civilian standing in the wrong place at the wrong time, one regulation that isn’t followed; all of a sudden, whistle blowers have their work cut out for them. And so, we come to today’s film concerning the events surrounding a single drone attack. Considering how much modern-day military cinema loves to demonize said military, I’m sure that this will just end up going along the same path. As always, I welcome the possibility that I’m wrong. This is Eye In The Sky.

The plot: Colonel Powell (Helen Mirren) and Lieutenant General Benson (Alan Rickman) are leading an operation to track down terrorists operating in Kenya and capture them. However, once they discover plans for a suicide bombing, they realize that capture may not be possible and that they might have to send in a drone to kill them now before they get the chance to move. However, there’s a lot of work that needs to be done in order to clear such a strike, not helped by certain complications that arise in the middle of their operation.

Have to admit, I’m only assuming that the Red films was the first time Helen Mirren got the chance to play something a bit more hard-nosed but, going by them and her performance here, hard-nosed is definitely a good look for her. Sure, she has some definite vulnerability to her which fits the circumstances of the story, but her growing impatience and anxiety over what else could happen is really solid. This is also the last live-action appearance of Rickman and, without a doubt, this is a great film to end his legacy on because he nails not only the light comedy he’s given in his initial scenes but also the raw emotion during the main plot, giving a sheer gut-punch of a delivery when questioned on his decisions. Aaron Paul probably gets his best film role yet as the drone pilot, embodying the film’s approach to human morality and vulnerability perfectly. Barkhad Abdi, playing a Kenyan agent of the American-British joint operation, pulls off his behind-enemy-lines persona really well and, between this and Captain Phillips, I only hope that the guy keeps getting work because he seriously deserves it. While the rest of the cast is definitely worth their salt in this production, a big highlight from the supporting cast has to be Babou Ceesay as Sergeant Saddiq, who bounces off of Mirren really well in his scenes and gives some great emotion through just his actions, in a film already filled with nerve-rattling silence.

This is an incredibly meticulous script, possibly even more so than Spotlight in just how much it shows going on behind the scenes of a single action. Rather than just showing the Americans or even just the British forces and their decisions, it shows pretty much every single decision made by not only both the UK and the US, but also the operatives operating within Nairobi. Of course, not that this film only factors in the militaristic aspects of such an operation, as the dialogue does a fantastic of balancing the military, political and legal ramifications of the drone attack but also the moral implications as well. It factors in as much as it can when it comes to what goes into a single strike: Ground-work to secure information that the targets are where they should be, making sure that the attack itself is done within national and international laws, calculating collateral damage that occur during said attack, etc. This might appear to be a no-duh kind of situation but, as films like London Has Fallen have unfortunately shown, the rules of engagement are too often depicting as expendable in modern political cinema, especially when the military gets involved. Hell, the film even factors parameters that cannot possibly be predicted, like a girl who just happens to be selling bread nearby or the British Foreign Secretary (Iain Glen) getting a nasty bout of food poisoning on the day when he needs to give clearance to such an operation.

I think about here is where it would be most appropriate to bring up how, for as heavy as the overall tones of the film can get, there’s a surprisingly large amount of pitch-black comedic moments as well. Admittedly, the cinema I saw this in has a bit of a reputation for finding inexplicable things funny (it was here that I had the Big Eyes incident) so they might have influenced things for my own viewing, but this film has some disarmingly humourous moments. Alongside the aforementioned bout of food poisoning, there’s also something weirdly funny about how so many of the officials involved just say “Take it up with the guy above me” because they can’t bear to take responsibility, only for the highest American government official contacted to basically ask why the hell they bothered to ask him in the first place, and that they’re clear. As weird as it can get at times, these little moments combined with the very human reaction of irritating and loud sighing do a lot to help alleviate the darker moments of the story. And make no mistake, from the subject matter to the largely soundtrack-less moments where you are forced to focus on either the potentially lethal words or the deafening silence between them, this gets unfathomably tense.

It is because of this that the film’s focus on the humanity involved is, ultimately, what makes it work as well as it does. Throughout the film, with every character that gets involved in this decision that could potentially end innocent lives, they are made out to be much more than just cogs in the military engine. Whether it’s awkward first-time dialogue between Watts and his co-sign Carrie (Phoebe Fox) or Benson’s opening scenes involving buying a baby toy, the fact that these are living, breathing human beings is never brought into question. In today’s day and age, where not only the mere idea of drone attacks but military operations as a whole are seen as these extremely cold and mechanical processes, showing the beating heart that goes into every one of those decisions is easily the best approach possible. At the very least, it makes for a good contrast to the majority of films surrounding soldiers of late, showing them as so emotionally detached as to almost be sociopaths. Now, if I was to bring in any form of political leaning into this review (which, for something this charged on all sides, I won’t), I would bring up how this is a fairly idealistic look into the inner workings of the military. However, since I maintain that films should be analysed as their own work and not as a pitch-perfect depiction of reality (whether that is the case or not), the humanizing approach to the concept of drones and what goes into each strike is definitely commendable.

All in all, this is truly amazing cinema. Through immensely strong performances, a script that keeps the humanity of the characters at the forefront (even taking time to establish that the enemies are extremists that other Muslims want nothing to do with) and direction that often lets the weight of the situation just sit on the characters’ shoulders, and by extension the audience’s, this marks a thankfully fresh look at the modern war thriller. And to think, this was directed by the guy who gave us so-not-Deadpool in X-Men Origins: Wolverine. It ranks higher than Spotlight, as this film’s emotional impact depends on far less than an innate fear of Catholic priests; if you have any belief in the importance of human life, you’ll get something out of this. However, in terms of sheer impact, I still have to give the nod to 10 Cloverfield Lane for doing so much with so little.

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