Catching Up: Eye in the Sky (2016)

Director: Gavin Hood
Cast: Helen Mirren, Alan Rickman, Aaron Paul, Jeremy Northam, Phoebe Fox, Barkhad Abdi, Richard McCabe, Monica Dolan, Iain Glen, Babou Ceesay, Kim Engelbrecht

Although I’ve been seizure free for a little over 20 years, because I have a history of epilepsy, I cannot join the military (at least that’s what I’m told). In a way, I’m glad. I don’t think I could handle making the choices that those brave men and women have to make on a daily basis, or see half of the things that they’re forced to see. I work as a CNA at a nursing home full-time, and while I love my job, I consider it the most emotionally taxing job that I’ve ever had. There are times when that job takes a very heavy toll on me, so I know I couldn’t handle living the life of a soldier.

Eye in the Sky is a movie about the horrifying choices soldiers are sometimes forced to make in war. There are no easy decisions, and no right or wrong answers. The movie gives us two opposing point of views on a particular action involving a drone strike, and it’s to the movie’s credit that it never takes sides. Both sides make valid points on the matter, and both sides would rather avoid a truly tragic outcome that could result from said action. No matter the choice that’s made, it is a potentially lose-lose situation.

Three terrorists of high importance (two of whom are British nationals and one a US citizen) have gathered in a small house in a poor village in Kenya. Three separate governments have been tracking these terrorists down for the past six years, and with all the targets in a single location (and because sending in foot soldiers could prove disastrous), it seems like a drone strike is really the only option. That’s the action Colonel Katherine Powell (Helen Mirren), who’s in command of the military operation, wishes to take, and it’s one that her superior Lt. General Frank Benson (Alan Rickman), agrees with, especially once surveillance footage shows explosives being prepped for a suicide bombing.

There’s just one major problem: footage also shows a little girl directly in the blast radius, selling loaves of bread on the street corner to support her family. The American pilots controlling the drone – Steve Watts (Aaron Paul) and Carrie Gershon (Phoebe Fox) – are not emotionally equipped to jump into a decision that could result in a child’s death. Their experience with controlling the “eye in the sky” drone have been missions where they’ve had to observe and record. They’ve never had to pull the trigger before.

I miss this guy! :'(
I miss this guy! :'(

Politicians in England – including Jeremy Northam’s Prime Minister, Richard McCabe as a legal advisor, and Monica Dolan as a consultant – are hesitant to give their approval. At first, the issue was a legal one (whether they have the right to blow up their targets without giving them their due process), but once the child comes into the picture, a whole slew of other issues come into play. Will the footage of the bombing somehow get leaked? If they go through with the action and the little girl dies, which side will win the “propaganda war,” the terrorists or the government? They try sending a Kenyan agent (Barkhad Abdi) in to buy all the child’s bread and getting her out of the way, but when he’s spotted and chased off by a couple of nearby soldiers, they’re no longer left with too many options.

The bulk of the movie focuses on Benson and Powell trying to get the approval from the proper authorities to go ahead with the strike. Characters debate the moral consequences of going ahead with the strike. If the terrorists leave the house, then it’s very possible that 80 people or more could be killed in a suicide bombing. Is one little girl worth sparing if it means the death of so many? If they pull the trigger and the little girl dies, does that make them any better than the terrorists they’re fighting?

These debates are at the heart of the movie, and they’re carried out by a number of superb performances. Mirren brings a steely determination to her role as a character who would rather not see the child die, but is also willing to do whatever it takes to win the war on terror. Alan Rickman is suave and charismatic as Powell’s superior, and manages to keep you engaged even during a seemingly superfluous subplot involving him buying a doll for his daughter. Abdi is just as excellent here as he was in Captain Phillips, Northam is riveting in an otherwise brief role, and both Paul and Fox are stellar in conveying to the audience the torment and horror they face in their unfortunate predicament.

Two actors who deserve just as much attention as the rest of the A-list cast!
Two actors who deserve just as much attention as the rest of the A-list cast!

The way director Gavin Hood ratchets up the tension in the final 20 minutes is positively Hitchcockian. More than once I found myself on the edge of my seat and holding my breath. The outcome of the situation will, of course, remain unsaid in this review. Let it be said that the film’s final moments are among the most suspenseful and haunting that I’ve seen this year.

Eye in the Sky is easily one of the best films of 2016. It’s suspenseful, thought-provoking, flawlessly acted, and very respectful of the military men and women who are forced to make the choices that nobody wants to make. By refusing to take sides and leaving out a political agenda in the proceedings, the movie allows the audience to engage in the central debate by wondering what they would do in that situation. It’s a horrifying thought to consider. It’s been two days since I’ve seen the movie, and I still don’t have an answer.

Final Grade: **** (out of ****)

Rated R for some disturbing violent images and profanity.

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