PLEASE NOTE: A shorter review by me can be read here.
Eye in the Sky is the first great movie of 2016 and coming so close after all the 2015 Oscar race releases is a real treat. More than just a drone strike film it is a multi-layered film about the implications and realities of modern warfare traversing the globe and giving an intimate account from various points of view including military, civilian and political.
In Nairobi, Kenya a young family starts their day like any other. The father Musa Mo’Allim played by Armaan Haggio goes about running his business in his front yard and his wife Fatima Mo’Allim (Faisa Hassan) puts bread in their wood fire oven to later be sold. Their only daughter Alia (Aisha Takow) plays with a hula hoop in their fenced in yard wearing her hijab. That bread in the oven is being made to be sold for some extra household income but will take on more meaning as events unfold. The story covering one day will take us around the world, to military bunkers in England, corridors of power in Washington and Whitehall, airbases in Nevada, comms stations in Hawaii and trade shows in the Far East. But all eyes will be on Nairobi and a handful of blocks that show terrorists and a girl selling bread on a street corner.
Helen Mirren leads an all-star cast as military intelligence officer Colonel Katherine Powell who has been tracking these terrorists for years and is leading an operation to have them captured by local Kenyan forces while providing the eye in the sky. The drone is operated by pilots remotely in Las Vegas, 2nd Lieutenant Steve Watts (Aaron Paul) and Airwoman Carrie Gershon (Phoebe Fox). When the terrorists move to less friendly territory and are confirmed to be preparing suicide vests the nature of the mission changes and suddenly the young Kenyan family’s house is more geographically relevant. Now the bread being put in the oven to be sold by the little girl on a street corner becomes extremely relevant. In order to carry out a new mission Powell must confirm facts on the ground with Kenyan undercover agent Hama Farah (played by Barkhad Abdi who broke out with Captain Phillips) and get approval from political authorities via Lieutenant General Frank Benson (the late great Alan Rickman) on both sides of the Atlantic.
At first glance the Kenyan family plays like a workshop of plot conveniences. The little girl at the very least must be put in harm’s way at some point because otherwise why is screen time being devoted to this random family with no relevance to the plot. Alia is then revealed to be learning how to read by her father who is obviously not supportive of the local rulers and their ways referring to them as ‘extremists’. Western audiences are being fed this information to like this family even more but as the film continues these plot devices fade away and real emotions develop. Kudos to the casting agents because Aisha Takow is a great little actress in this pivotal role that could’ve sunk the whole movie if she had been too cute or too clichéd but instead provides a human face for the growing potential of collateral damage.
The film also has a sly sense of humour whether it is generals ordering dolls for granddaughters (oh Mr Rickman you are gone far too soon Sir), Foreign Secretaries taking important calls while suffering food poisoning or Americans being annoyed at having to interrupt table tennis games. The script also plays with audience expectations for action to take place ramping up the comic deferral of politicians who would usually claim they have a great deal of power and importance in the scheme of things but here are most stern when they are insisting on pushing decisions upstairs. Rickman who always could do pained exasperation well does some great work here as Lt-Gen Benson. Helen Mirren who pulls it all together and ultimately has to make the decisions (even if she has to gain approval first) plays many notes projecting authority to her command, quietly being frustrated by her political masters, talking through an important factor with her subordinate or watching a threat escalate halfway around the world. Aaron Paul’s role is less demonstrative but he plays it well, Lt. Watts is the trigger and it weighs on him heavily. Barkhad Abdi revels in getting to play a hero and while it’s a less complicated role than his break out role in Captain Phillips it hopefully proves to Hollywood that he can be utilised in many types of parts going forward.
The plot develops in stages passing on information to the audience as the characters learn things. Great care is taken to introduce all characters and keep us aware of the location of key figures in Nairobi. The scope of the film, mostly shot in South Africa is impressive and while for the most part low key, the location shooting feels authentic right through street vendors in Kenya and convention centres in Asia. It is interesting to note South Africa locations stood in for some depicted elsewhere in the world effortlessly. This is not a film against the advent of new military technology, bemoaning collateral damage or questioning foreign policy. It says nothing definitively but invites discussion amongst us all. The screenplay, a brilliant piece of work by Guy Hibbert, is full of small observances and neat contradictions holding true to personal points of view and yet mindful of more far reaching consequences. It is a court room drama before the fact and places the audience to be the jury.
General Benson’s uniform sports the British ribbons for the Persian Gulf War and Afghanistan with Mention in Dispatches. He tells a civilian at one point that he’s been on the ground at five bombings with the bodies, “Never tell a soldier they don’t know the cost of war.” And yet we look at two USAF members who may know the cost of war but who have never been on the ground with the bodies. A politician takes off his shirt and we see he has been sweating very heavily, miles away from any danger he is under stress and carefully weighing potential life and death decisions even though if one is made and it backfires it is doubtful he’ll be investigated as harshly as Col Powers who remains ice cool throughout the whole movie. Missiles hovering high in the sky waiting for civilians at trade deals to come and answer their phones. Boys selling cheap plastic buckets to act as a cover story for an agent while he operates multi-million dollar miniature drones to fly inside a safe house. Bread in a wood fired oven potentially being a death sentence. Gavin Hood’s film powerfully conveys a brave new world with the same old truths of human nature. We want to raise our children in peace, go to work, come home and see them playing in our yards. But war has always existed and people die in wars.