Sunday, March 27, 2016

"Eye in the Sky"

 4 / 5 

The extraordinary lead actors of the war thriller Eye in the Sky — Helen Mirren, Aaron Paul, Alan Rickman and Barkhad Abdi — never share a scene in the entire movie, yet the tension between them is palpable even though almost all they do is stare at video screens.

It's an unlikely setup for a suspense-thriller, but, let's face it, drones make for an unlikely war, and Eye in the Sky offers up a central conflict so simple and intense that no matter how you feel about the ethical quandary the movie explores, it's impossible not to be drawn in.

As a British military intelligence commander, Mirren kicks things off when she gets the word that three of the most sought-after extremist terrorists in Africa are going to be in a single house in Nairobi.  It's a prime opportunity to capture all of them, in particular a British national who has become radicalized.

Government officials, under the watch of a droll lieutenant general (Alan Rickman, in his final on-screen appearance), gather in a plush Whitehall office to watch the video feed from a drone orbiting the Kenyan shanty from 20,000 feet.  Their goal is to ensure that the British woman that has joined al-Shabaab is captured and returned for trial.

Thousands of miles away on an Air Force Base in Las Vegas, a young lieutenant (Aaron Paul) pilots the drone, commanding its movements along with a co-pilot, both safe in the confines of a small room that couldn't be more far removed from the high-stakes drama playing out in Kenya, where two local operatives are using tiny flying cameras to get in close.

One of them (Barkhad Abdi) manages to get inside only to discover that the woman and her jihadist cohorts are making plans for a massive suicide bombing — leading to Mirren's call for a drone strike that will take them all out.  Her certainty is undermined by the hemming and hawing of the government officials, none of whom are willing or able to give the authorization.  Their endless, bureaucratic waffling and buck-passing takes so long that the situation gets more complex when a little girl (Aisha Takow) who lives next door to the house sets up a makeshift stand to sell bread — putting her at risk to become collateral damage if the missile is launched.

Fire the missile, destroy the terrorists and prevent a large-scale attack — or protect the innocent girl? It seems an easy decision, and Mirren can't understand why there's so much indecisiveness about it, but pilot Paul refuses to pull the trigger unless he has a better sense of the chances the girl will be hurt, while cabinet ministers reason that al-Shabaab will be the only group to blame for an attack, while the world will heap scorn upon a government that let an innocent 9-year-old die.

As the debate rages, the preparations for a Westgate Mall-style attack continue, and the clock runs short.

In that sense, Eye in the Sky is an effective update of the Cold War thriller Fail Safe, which played with the tensions of a nuclear strike from the claustrophobic settings of war rooms, bunkers and cockpits.  The stakes are lower than the end of the entire world, but director Gavin Hood keeps the drama taut and tight, especially as Abdi, the only agent on the ground, tries to figure out a way to help the unknowing girl without rousing the suspicions of the militant extremists who patrol the town.

While they never share scenes and rarely even communicate with each other, Mirren, Paul and Rickman are all integral to the drama, and manage to keep it not just cohesive but inarguably effective.  Eye in the Sky is a war movie, but most importantly it's top-notch thriller.  It's got a terrific screenplay and an impressive sense of visual style -- mixing the aerial footage with enough street-level action to keep it from feeling like yet another "found footage"-style film -- but the real hero of the movie has to be its editor, Megan Gill, who effortlessly weaves together scenes of talking heads that could be less compelling without such strong editorial panache.

With the gruff, no-nonsense Mirren countered by an exasperated Rickman and an anxious Paul, the actors add immeasurably to the drama, with strong supporting work by a surprisingly strong cast of performers who convey the uncertainty of fighting a war from thousands of miles away.

It may offer a new perspective on war, but Eye in the Sky sticks to the tried and true method of telling a story: with impressive force and relentless confidence.

Viewed March 26, 2016 -- ArcLight Sherman Oaks


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