Sunday, April 17, 2016

Eye in the Sky


A joint UK/US intelligence operation headed by Colonel Katherine Powell (Helen Mirren) is surveilling a safe house in Nairobi where high-ranking members of a terrorist cell – including radicalised nationals from both countries – are meeting. A remote control drone disguised as a bird provides insufficient coverage, so Kenyan agent and man-on-the-ground Jama Farah (Barkhad Abdi) is dispatched to get as close to the property as possible, where – under the noses of militia with short-tempers and itchy trigger-fingers – he deploys an even smaller drone, this one resembling an insect, and manoeuvres it into the house. Intel confirms the presence, in particular, of radicalised UK terror suspect Susan Danford (Lex King), whom Powell has been tracking for over half a decade. In Whitehall, Lieutenant General Frank Benson (Alan Rickman), Powell’s superior, talks Members of Parliament Brian Woodale (Jeremy Northam) and Angela Northman (Monica Dolan) and Attorney General George Matherson (Richard McCabe) through the operation in real-time. The intended outcome is the apprehension of Danford.

Then the perameters change. Footage of suicide bombers assembling explosive vests are transmitted from the house and Powell seeks Benson’s authorisation to use deadly force. Benson asks for ministerial approval. American drone pilot Steve Watts (Aaron Paul) and observer Carrie Gershon (Phoebe Fox) stand-by to deploy a missile from their aptly-named Reaper drone. When Gershon notices a young girl, Alia (Aisha Takow), selling bread at a stall close to the safe house, Watts questions Powell’s now-approved executive order. What follows is a succession of political wrangling as everyone from Woodale to the Foreign Secretary (Iain Glen) try to disengage themselves from involvement and/or responsibility. Meanwhile, US politicos – including White House advisor Jillian Goldman (Laila Roberts) and the Secretary of State (Michael O’Keefe) – advocate an expedient pro-bombing outcome.

The poster for ‘Eye in the Sky’ trumpets an appreciative quote from The Times: “a tense, morally complex and extremely prescient thriller”. Tense, yes – Gavin Hood’s direction is unobtrusive and economical, establishing four or five key locations and a hierarchy of tense interrelationships, and never losing sight of any single character’s part in the unfolding drama. Prescient, yes – this is the kind of stuff that earns that hoary old “ripped from the headlines” epithet (albeit from the headlines of The Daily Mail: everyone in the safehouse, regardless of nationality, is a terrorist because of religion; Danford’s backstory is basically “she became radicalised after hanging around mosques”. ‘Eye in the Sky’ is horribly racist and Islamphobic.)

But morally complex? Don’t make me fucking laugh. The script presents those inside the safe house as an immediate and credible threat and throws in a specious line about an inability to engage them on the ground; therefore the drone strike is a foregone conclusion. People are shown passing by or standing guard outside the safe house throughout the film; they will almost certainly be killed or badly injured – but this, too, is a foregone conclusion and the script (by Guy Hibbert) clearly doesn’t care about them. The morality of the act itself is never debated – drones find bad people so they can be killed and this is a good thing is the intellectual starting point from which the film proceeds – and what we’re left with is a bit of theorising on acceptable levels of collateral damage and how the death or serious injury of a child might be used by either side in terms of PR/propaganda.

Scenes of parliamentary pass-the-parcel play out like an episode of ‘Yes, Minister’ without the jokes, while the will-Alia-sell-all-the-bread? moments come off like a badly done Hitchcock homage; they serve to weaken any serious considerations the film might have traded in. Ditto the obvious attempts at humour, such as Benson’s fish-out-of-water mission to buy a present for his daughter or the Foreign Secretary taking urgent calls while entrenched on the toilet with food poisoning – perhaps these scenes were intended as a counterbalance to all the serious business, but they just come off as risible.

Sad to note, too, that the performances are generally lacklustre. Rickman’s is phoned in and it’s a genuine tragedy that ‘Eye in the Sky’ is his swansong. Dolan seems to think she’s still in character from ‘Alan Partridge: Alpha Papa’. Glen seems like he popped in between takes on ‘Game of Thrones’ and had his mind on other things. Mirren is good, but somewhat long in the tooth to be a serving member of the armed forces. Paul and Fox play well off each other, small glances between them communicating a world of doubt while they still function within the chain of command. Abdi does the best work of the ensemble, in no small part due to the fact that his is the only character who actually has an emotional investment, by dint of proximity, in Alia’s fate. Had the film played out entirely from his perspective in the danger zone, rather than on wall mounted screens and laptops viewed by overpaid right-wingers in the safety of their offices, it could have been the ‘All Quiet on the Western Front’ of the post-9/11 age. As it is, it’s a sixth form debate wrapped around a shiny, phallic bit of drone porn.

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