Monday, March 07, 2016

Eye in the Sky: 21st Century Brinksmanship

You would think so-called “peace activists” would embrace the use of military drones. It removes military personnel from harm’s way and shifts tactical decisions higher up the chain of command to senior officers and civilian officials who are more sensitive to political and media pressure. The resulting dithering is vividly dramatized in Gavin Hood’s Eye in the Sky (trailer here), which opens this Friday in New York.

“Refer up” is a bit of military shorthand that will become like fingernails on a blackboard to viewers during the course of Eye. It means passing the buck to next level of authority. Frankly, British Col. Katherine Powell is in no mood to refer up. Earlier in the morning, she learned a highly placed source had been beheaded by African Islamist terrorists. After briefly gaining assurances from her superior, Lt. Gen. Frank Benson, the man’s family will be taken care of, Powell preps for her mission.

From a British military base, Powell will coordinate an effort to capture Susan Danford, a radicalized British convert, who is now number two on the African most wanted list. It was planned as a capture mission to be executed on the ground by the Kenyan Special Forces, with surveillance support provided by an American drone piloted by a crew in Las Vegas. However, the Kenyans are put on hold when Danford rendezvouses with two prospective suicide bombers in a Jihadi-controlled “no-go” neighborhood in Nairobi.

With the suicide bombers suiting up, Powell requests permission to take out the safe house. To her, it seems like a no-brainer, even though a young girl is inconveniently selling bread on the street corner within the probable blast radius. When the vested-up terrorists leave in separate directions, the drone will only be able to follow one of them. Unfortunately, because of the girl and her bread, the civilian observers insist Benson begins the agonizing process of “referring up.” British ministers and American cabinet secretaries must be located around the globe, as the aspiring suicide bombers record their statements and say their prayers.

It is hard to believe this film was directed by Gavin “Redacted” Hood, because it is surprisingly, shockingly balanced. In fact, he might just overcompensate in favor of drone strikes against known terrorist targets, at least in the early going. Powell’s logic is at least as compelling as the little girl’s claim on everyone’s emotions—more will die if they do not act. Yet, it is the craven referring-up that will have the audience beating their heads against the seat-back in front of them. Somewhat problematically, the film’s climax and denouement are shamelessly manipulative (perhaps another overcompensation), but the steely Lt. Gen. gets the last word and it’s a doozy.

Sadly, Eye represents one of two posthumous releases from the late, great Alan Rickman (how was he never nominated for an Oscar?), but he clearly left us at the peak of his craft. He flat-out steals the picture in the closing minutes. As one would expect, Dame Helen Mirren is rock solid anchoring the film as the cool, calm, and collected Col. Powell, who struggles to remain that way, despite the bureaucratic indecision jeopardizing her mission. Barkhad Abdi is also quietly intense as Jama Farah, a Somali-Kenyan undercover operative, proving he wasn’t just a one-hit-wonder in Captain Phillips. Unfortunately, the usually reliable Jeremy Northam is rather facelessly punctilious as Powell’s Defense Ministry observer.

Regardless, screenwriter Guy Hibbert (who also penned the terrific Five Minutes of Heaven and One Child) defies and exceeds all expectations for providing so much grist for both sides to debate. Unlike the loaded Good Kill, Eye readily acknowledges there are pros and cons to either position. It is never lecturey, but it definitely has bite. Hood also deserves credit for the film’s tight, tense execution. No matter how viewers feel about military drones, it is worth seeing simply as a ticking clock thriller. Recommended with unexpected enthusiasm, Eye in the Sky opens this Friday (3/11) in New York, at AMC Lowes Lincoln Square and Regal Union Square theaters.