Well this film came out of nowhere. A film about modern drone warfare boasting a stellar cast that’s this good and has absolutely no buzz or press, I decided to see this because of a TV Spot I saw a few days earlier and because I managed to get a discount on the cinema ticket not really expecting anything from this movie. The film starts slow and continues to slowly build as director Gavin Hood introduces you to all the players, this film’s plot spans through major three countries while visiting others so it could be easy to get lost fast but that never happens. Hood takes his time and that slow build just continues to ratchet up to an unbearable tension that drives the story forward.
The players are members of British military portrayed by Helen Mirren and Alan Rickman, two characters in different rooms watching the same live feeds for the same mission but dealing with separate obstacles concerning the nature of the mission. Mirren is the Colonel running a mission to capture high value terrorist targets in Kenya, as Rickman is a General coordinating with members of the British government including ministers and the Attorney General. On the other side of the world is Aaron Paul’s (Breaking Bad) drone pilot sitting in one the various trailers at Nevada military base operating the drone being used in the joint mission with the British. Finally on the ground in Kenya is Barkhad Abdi (Captain Phillips) as an undercover Kenyan military operative running on the ground surveillance of the targets. Lots of players, lots of locations, lots of complications but Gavin Hood just slowly builds and builds his story and the grand thematic complications that come with it. The first twenty minutes may seem slow but the moment the mission starts, you become engaged instantly and there is little to no confusion.
As the story builds, the mission becomes more and more complicated, all four main characters are put through trials as they debate with each other and themselves on what the right course of action is. Basically a “capture” mission turns into a “kill” mission and Hood crafts a debate of the merits of drone warfare within his film and makes both sides present their arguments with real stakes and a ticking clock. The ramifications of either decision are debated as the mission parameters continue to evolve on the ground in Kenya, new discoveries or coincidental moments spur new deliberations across the globe as everyone is looking for the answer to the question “do we fire the missile?”. It is a powerful debate that is crafted and the audience’s views may change within the film, I personally am opposed to drone warfare but this film displays its arguments so powerfully that within the context of the mission there were points that I was pro drone strike.
I do not want to get into specific story points but the film showcases well how warfare has evolved. Three of the main characters are in the same location for the entirety of the film, Mirren, Rickman and Paul’s characters making all the crucial decisions despite being thousands of miles away. Only Abdi’s character is on the ground, constantly adapting to help the mission and is the only one endangering his life. Hood shows how difficult this type of warfare becomes, how tedious and frustrating this warfare can become, one of the subplots is how Rickman’s side has constant referrals to different members of governments both domestic and foreign to find legal and ethical answers to difficult questions.
Hood’s expert building of tension is only strengthened by the amazing cast, the four main characters have a fantastic supporting cast all contributing to different pieces of the film’s main arguments. Mirren and Rickman’s representation of military may seem cold and harsh at times, they understand the consequences of terrorist actions first hand and want the strike to happen as soon as possible, believing that the collateral damage of the strike is minimal compared to what would happen if it didn’t . Rickman who passed away earlier this year gives a fantastic last performance as his character is a mix of dry humour, authority and powerful drama which works so well within the film. Mirren commands the screen as well and her character creates certain ethical questions with drone warfare as the story progresses into it’s more complicated territory. Aaron Paul’s drone pilot really brought the emotion, he’s the trigger man and there are points in this film where he risks his career over the ethics if he should pull that trigger. Really showing that despite that disconnect there can be with drones the emotional hardships that come with being a solider do not go away. Finally Barkhad Abdi makes a great return as the man on the ground, he sells the dangers that come with being an operative in this new warfare and despite his presence there, the complications continue to arise.
This film doesn’t answer the question if drones are good or bad, it just asks you the question and tells you this story. With every minute, every new development, Gavin Hood just winds up the tension to unbearable breaking point. My feet couldn’t stop tapping the floor, I was chewing my nails, the tension kept building and building and when the film finally lets it all go, there’s no relief just a devastating gut punch. Eye in the Sky is an amazing film that shows that in our time of modern warfare that there is no real victory and that the successes we take in our conflicts at home and abroad will always have consequences. Consequences that we have to live with, consquences that will make us question if we made the right decision and how we have to keep going despite those consquences.
Eye in the Sky is nothing short of a compelling thriller and a triumph of British film that presents a truly challenging story that hopefully will create fascinating audience debate. If you have the opportunity to witness this film, then take it, you won’t regret it.