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Eye in the Sky (2015)
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by Jay Seaver

"Rules with Engagement."
5 stars

What one often reads about Unmanned Aerial Vehicle strikes may lead such a person to believe that the way concern about collateral damage drives "Eye in the Sky" marks it as a fantasy, as does the stark, immediate decision that it presents those running such operations. On the other hand, presenting it that way certainly puts the issues that the filmmakers want the audience to consider in sharp relief, and also adds enough drama to the mix that the film is also a fantastic thriller despite it often being built on what might be described as frenzied inactivity.

The situation is this: A joint effort between Kenya, the United Kingdom, and the United States expects radicals from all three to converge in Nairobi today. UK Colonel Katherine Powell (Helen Mirren) is in operational command in London, with the goal of the mission being for Kenyan intelligence officers to capture the terrorists so that they can stand trial. The UAV piloted by Steve Watts (Aaron Paul) and Carrie Gershon (Phoebe Fox) from a US Air Force Base in Nevada is meant to provide surveillance so that a different unit in Hawaii can use facial recognition to confirm targets. It's never that easy, though - the suspects decamp for a less secure location before being positively identified, and while new intelligence may suggest good reason to escalate the rules of engagement from "capture" to "kill", few of the British politicians overseeing the mission alongside Lt. General Frank Benson (Alan Rickman) are prepared to do so - especially since the collateral damage will almost certainly include an innocent little girl (Aisha Takow) selling her mother's fresh-baked bread right next to the terrorists' urban compound.

The screenplay by Guy Hibbert presents a situation that, while not ideal, is ideally dramatic, presenting the decision-makers with moral dilemmas made all more keen by the fact that both their intelligence and weaponry is rather precise, likely far more so than it ever is in the real world. That dramatic license brings the main theme - that being able to operate on a more granular level presents one with more specific, less abstracted, consequences - into sharp focus. Intriguingly, this works because of something that often seems like a cheap trick in the movies: A few scenes showing Alia early on get the audience to care about her more than the anonymous people around her, and the same thing happens with Watts and Gershon, who spotted Alia playing with a hula hoop earlier. Certainly, many of those involved would have qualms about random civilians, but this exploits a very familiar piece of human psychology to bring the issue into sharp relief.

With this being the case, it's especially incumbent upon those seeking to push ahead with the mission to come across as having a reasonable point of view, as opposed to being complete monsters. The film provides humanizing moments for the commanders early on - we see Powell tending to her dog during a sleepless night and a befuddled Benson trying to buy a doll for his granddaughter - but it mostly falls upon the actors to strike exactly the right tone. Helen Mirren is terrific as Powell; she is decidedly the most aggressive of the military personality but manages to give just enough weight to herbrief comments about how long she's been persuing one of the targets that some of her more ethically questionable actions read as straddling a moral line rather than ignoring it. It's a performance that looks simple on its face, but if she falters just a little bit, this becomes a film about how she's the real villain. Alan Rickman goes a slightly different direction in what wound up being his final live-action film role, showing Benson's sympathies being with Powell but expressing it as a drier sorry of impatience. Rickman's withering delivery doesn't quite make the one man in the room advocating an assassination into the one reasonable person in the room surrounded by cowardly idiots, but his leaning in that direction gives a hint of the more satirical bent that the film could have taken.

Someone other than director Gavin Hood might have played Eye in the Sky as black comedy, but he opts to just take half-steps in that direction as much of the film involves politicians (and those in the military who are not traditional soldiers) selling permission that they do not actually want to be given. Hibbert and Hood send the story into odd places but most laughs they get will come more from discomfort than amusement. There's an intriguing sort of stratification of opinions that's not a simple function of whether someone is pulling a trigger or setting policy but logical all the same, and quiet but pointed notes of the differences between American and British policy. Hood and editor Megan Gill also do a fine job of keeping whatever is most important at a given point on the front burner without feeling like they're neglecting anything.

Perhaps they could be seen as neglecting the targets' perspectives; they're not quite faceless (one could argue that they are nothing but faces to be fed into recognition software), but they're pointedly voiceless; even when we get in close, it's via tiny robotic cameras not wired for sound. The film still manages to cast them as villains versus the antagonists fueling the main conflict - note how Alia's father (Armaan Haggio) warns her to put away both types and textbooks when their neighbors visit - which leads to some cracking tension on the ground beyond the ethical debate happening elsewhere. Barkhad Abdi shows that his work in Captain Phillips was not a fluke of a non-actor in the right role, playing the Kenyan cop who goes from getting close enough to do the actual surveillance to trying to get Alia out of the line of fire with understated capability that nevertheless gets across just how difficult his part of the mission is.

The balance between those elements allows "Eye in the Sky" to have the characteristics of both a great play and a smart action movie: It jumps from location to location around a world that modern communications has made seem absurdly small to facilitate a discussion about ethics in a tightly-bound situation but still has plenty of room for visceral thrills that empathize the life-or-death nature of the argument (and it is an argument in the most civil sense of the word; viewers with differing opinions should all find something worthwhile to ponder here). That makes for a terrific, tense movie, well worth seeking out even if it's not playing on the same huge screens as the less-thoughtful military thrillers.

link directly to this review at http://www.efilmcritic.com/review.php?movie=29526&reviewer=371
originally posted: 03/25/16 08:18:07
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2015 Toronto International Film Festival For more in the 2015 Toronto International Film Festival series, click here.

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USA
  11-Mar-2016 (R)
  DVD: 28-Jun-2016

UK
  15-Apr-2016 (15)

Australia
  24-Mar-2016
  DVD: 28-Jun-2016


Directed by
  Gavin Hood

Written by
  Guy Hibbert

Cast
  Aaron Paul
  Alan Rickman
  Helen Mirren
  Iain Glen
  Kim Engelbrecht
  Barkhad Abdi



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