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Eye in the Sky




Eye in the Sky (R)
Film reviews by Amy Diaz

04/07/16
By Amy Diaz adiaz@hippopress.com



Drones, their benefits and problems, are the focus of Eye in the Sky, a smart, tense, well-written, cleverly constructed tale of one drone strike.

If you’ve ever been all “why is everything a superhero movie? why can’t they make movies for adults?,” allow me to present Eye in the Sky. I would even suggest going to the movie theater to see it. Heck, get the popcorn — this movie is worth the money.
Eye in the Sky sets out to show that a drone strike isn’t just one dude at a computer somewhere; it takes a village full of buck-passers and waffling decision-makers to organize.
Though British Colonel Katherine Powell (Helen Mirren) is neither buck-passing nor waffling; she is determined to capture Susan Danford (Lex King), a British woman who is now married to an upper-echelon terrorist. Powell has been tracking the woman for years and has received intelligence that Danford and her husband as well as some terrorist organization recruits (including one American citizen) are going to be at a house in Kenya. Powell has organized an elaborate operation — including Kenyan intelligence forces — to capture Danford and the others. Outside the compound where Danford is expected to arrive, Kenyan agents Damisi (Ebby Weyime) and Jama Farah (Barkhad Abdi) sit in a van and use tiny radio-controlled cameras, including one made up to look like a bird and capable of flying, to watch the compound.
In a conference room in London, Lt. General Frank Benson (Alan Rickman) oversees video from the operation with an assortment of civilian officials, including the British attorney general George Matherson (Richard McCabe) and representatives from other levels of government Brian Woodale (Jeremy Northam) and Angela Northman (Monica Dolan). 
In Nevada, American Air Force drone pilot Steve Watts (Aaron Paul) and the person assisting him with the drone, Carrie Gershon (Phoebe Fox), sit in what looks like a storage container providing surveillance for the mission using a drone equipped with two Hellfire missiles. Meanwhile, in Hawaii another member of the U.S. military, Lucy Galvez (Kim Engelbrecht), uses images sent by the drone and the Kenyan surveillance devices to identify Danford and the other people on the ground. 
As is no surprise for something with this many moving parts, everything with the operation does not go as planned. Instead of the meeting with Danford, the American and the other terrorists taking place at the compound under surveillance, the group moves to another location, one deep within territory of a local militia that will violently resist an arrest operation by the Kenyan officials. With the help of a cockroach-sized flying camera deployed by the Kenyan surveillance agents, the British officials learn that not only are all of their terrorist targets at this new location but so is a man outfitting two of the people with suicide vests. Now, not only is the operation about catching/killing some most-wanteds, it’s about preventing an imminent attack that could kill and injure dozens, maybe hundreds.
Powell thinks the best response is to use the drone’s Hellfires immediately, but her legal adviser tells her that this changes the mission enough that she needs to refer it up the chain of command, which means a call to Benson. Benson supports the use of the missiles but the civilians in the room have varying opinions, causing them to refer up to the Foreign Secretary (Iain Glen), who as it happens is at a conference outside the country. Or, more specifically, he literally runs out of the conference and back to his hotel room so he can hug the toilet and yak out the food poisoning he contracted at a conference outside the country. Sweaty and shaky, he suggests, because of the presence of an American citizen, that they refer the matter to the U.S. Secretary of State (Michael O’Keefe), who is also in the middle of a foreign visit. 
The search for legal and political justification and/or cover for the attack becomes all the more difficult as  Alia (Aisha Takow) enters the frame. A young girl whose scenes of play, schoolwork and chores at her family’s compound have been intercut with scenes of military and political officials, Alia’s everyday tasks put her directly next to the compound in the crosshairs. As it appears that her life is now likely part of the equation, drone pilot Steve Watts asks for an update to the estimates of collateral damage and Powell scrambles to find a way to go ahead with the bombing even though the girl is likely to be injured or killed. 
Thus do we get the movie’s central question: what is the lesser evil — the likely death of one girl now, on camera and with the knowledge and consent of all involved, or the probable deaths of scores of other equally innocent people a short time later, deaths that were basically preventable?
Eye in the Sky has no easy answers about this debate — not morally, not legally, not politically and not strategically. The characters discuss and consider all options and not in some “this character represents ‘yes on drones’” black-and-white debate but the way one suspects normal humans do in this scenario, weighing risks and coming to the situation with their own set of prejudices and points of view. 
Powell, the strongest advocate for the bombing, is not blood-thirsty and even though the attack closes a case for her we don’t get the sense that this is the (or at least the only) motivating factor. Her goal is getting rid of a group of dangerous people and preventing what she believes is an attack on civilians that will take place in hours if not minutes. Meanwhile, the strongest advocate for not bombing the house is British government official Angela Northman. But even her argument — which does include saving Alia from near-certain death — isn’t totally pure. She also thinks that politically it is better for the terrorists to kill dozens of people at a shopping mall than for the British/American forces to kill this one girl via drones. 
In between these two women — and is there something interesting about two women and a girl being the focal points of this question? — are a range of opinions and people whose main motivation is not having to give a definitive opinion. “Refer up” isn’t just about getting wiser heads to consider the matter; it’s about butt-covering and guilt-spreading. 
Eye in the Sky approaches all of this with nuance and enough gray area in its consideration of drone use  that I think the audience could see an argument for either side. Editing and strong performances all around keep the story tense and energized throughout (Alan Rickman’s performance, perhaps his last on-screen appearance according to IMDB, reminds you of how much he could do with a role and of how much he will be missed). Smart, entertaining storytelling about serious subjects? Yes, it is possible! A
Rated R for some violent images and language. Directed by Gavin Hood with a screenplay by Guy Hibbert, Eye in the Sky is an hour and 42 minutes and distributed by Entertainment One.  
 





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