Director: Gavin Hood
Cast: Helen Mirren, Aaron Paul, Alan Rickman, Barkhad Abdi, Iain Glen, Phoebe Fox
Plot: Colonel Katherine Powell (Mirren) heads a military operation that spins wildly out of control, causing some drastic decision-making.
Eye in the Sky is one of the most powerful pieces of story-telling a 2016 movie has boasted. It charts a team of people, spread across the globe, all focused on a single military operation. A group of known Muslim radicals, all on the UK’s and US’s kill list, end up in the same building. The original capture mission is deemed illogical due to the high amount of enemy soldiers in the area. However, as Helen Mirren’s steely Colonel Powell waits for clearance to fire a Hellfire missile from their drone, their ‘eye in the sky’, the parameters of the decision escalates significantly. Hood creates a movie that whips up a nightmare scenario and asks the audience to try and figure out what to do. The idea is to throw the viewer into the kind of horrific scenario that military men and women face regularly, putting across the psychological and emotional trauma that comes with the job. As the mission plays out, Powell finds herself needing to get permission to continue at every step of the way. As she asks her superiors to confirm the green-light, we get a peek of the chain of command. As politicians scramble to cover their ass, commanders risk their agents’ lives to buy everyone a few more minutes to decide. The context of the decision-making is also clear. While the drone pilot is almost too close to the consequences to make a logical decision, on the other end of the scale, the Foreign Secretary is asked to make a life or death situation in mere seconds, with little context and a severe bout of food poisoning. It is frightening to wonder what real life decisions have been made based on the mood or situation of the most senior person. Whenever a decision is eventually made, something happens that requires reconfirmation. The idea is that Powell’s relatively easy job is made impossible by red tape and ass-covering. However, the genius of the story is that you aren’t quite sure what you want to happen yet. Like all good films that revolve around a moral choice, there are strong points on either side. Just when you have wrapped your mind around the right thing to do, the story jumps to the point of view of another character, throwing your self-doubt right back into the original turmoil. The movie ends and you are still tossing and turning over if the right call was made. And therein lies the brilliance of Eye in the Sky.
With an all-star cast, it is a bit of a shame that the story doesn’t quite lend itself to the performance side of things. This is a movie that needs to play everything loose and fast. Helen Mirren is technically the lead, but the movie cuts away from her so much that she feels more of a cog in a machine than anything else. There are no bad performances on show here; far from it. Everyone performs admirably, the horror of what they are witnessing always clear as the movie unfolds. But the whole point of the piece is that the protagonists are separate from the action, sitting back and watching from afar. Mirren and Rickman are on fine form, but trapped in their single set locations, only getting a chance to shine in the smaller moments. It is a credit to the two veteran actors that they are so effective with so little to work with. It does mean that the star of the show easily goes to Aaron Paul as the drone pilot. While the higher authorities make the decision from their base, it is Aaron Paul’s character who has to push the button that takes dozens of lives. As he keeps a cold, calculating, never anything less than professional, we see his heart breaking from within. It is a wondrous performance, especially as the movie hits its boiling point. Since Breaking Bad, Paul hasn’t quite been given a role that has been pushed him as much as Jesse did. Eye in the Sky comes very close to harnessing that greatness that he had on the smaller screen. With the cast only able to do so much, it lies to the director to make the movie. And Hood is one to watch. He knowingly squeezes the most out of every scene, a conscious choice to never focus too hard on a single character. The movie comes alive with the more intelligent pieces of direction. The silence of the combat from the drone footage is far more powerful that any hectic sound-scaping. I never imagined that watching a girl sell bread could be such a strong source of nail-biting tension. But Hood manages it with ease, all the while, telling such a powerful story. Eye in the Sky will stick in your mind long after you’ve finished watching it, a credit to such an intelligent narrative.
Final Verdict: Gavin Hood is in full control of his shocking story about the severity and complexity of military decisions.