For a film which begins with several lines of bloated and somewhat clumsy exposition, Eye in the Sky has absolutely no right to be this good. Aided by a depth of acting talent including Helen Mirren, Barkhad Abdi, Aaron Paul and the late Alan Rickman in one of his final roles, Eye in the Sky is a hugely suspenseful, politically potent and heavyweight thriller from the director of X-Men Origins: Wolverine, Gavin Hood.
Mirren plays Colonel Katherine Powell, who controls a mission to capture some of the most wanted Al-Shabaab extremists in Kenya, commanding remotely from Sussex. In Nevada, Aaron Paul’s character controls a reaper drone, Alan Rickman plays a lieutenant supervising the mission from London alongside cabinet ministers, whilst Barkhad Abdi plays the man on the ground getting his hands dirty.
These remote factions interact intensely despite never occupying the same physical space, a seamless quilt of espionage and assassination. This seamlessness might be the case superficially, but Eye in the Sky uncovers the moral and legal complexity of this new form of warfare. It manages to frustrate through uncovering the legal difficulties in getting difficult decisions made but it also highlights the great emotional burden innate within these decisions, which are all the more confusing due to the physical distance between the decision makers and those that are impacted. The film doesn’t hammer home these points, but they’re very much present.
Much to the Colonel’s dismay, the politicians continually opt to ‘refer up’ rather than take responsibility themselves, which manages to play for humour and emotional resonance. These are decisions no one should make comfortably if they want to be able to sleep easily at night. Questions over collateral damage inevitably form the greatest burden and moral confusion. Early on, the film introduces a little Kenyan girl and her sweet family and you know she’s going to be in big trouble. What’s so surprising is despite all this blatant signposting that ill-fortune/a British drone strike will inevitably find this little girl, the tension never waivers.
Mirren is superb as the hardened Colonel, prepared to see the numbers whilst others deliberate, as is Rickman, whose very simple final words to an emotional politician resonate and linger profoundly like only a great actor could deliver. Aaron Paul’s casting becomes clearer when it is his character whose conscious instigates this quagmire of deliberations, whilst Barkhad Abdi’s ability to present intensity and awareness proves he was far from a one hit wonder in Captain Phillips.
Perhaps the greatest genius of Eye in the Sky is its use of real time to show the escalation of events. It’s a really simple device but utterly engrossing. In fact, its so engrossing that its effectiveness only becomes apparent after a time of reflection. After a shaky start, this is a dense and thankfully non-didactic film which takes no particular stance on the complicated issues it presents, preferring to fairly present the different perspectives for these dreadful, distinctly 21st century moral conundrums, culminating in nail-biting tension.
Review by David Rank
Eye in the Sky is out now in the UK. Certificate 15 (UK). Running time 102 mins.