Reviewed by Lesley Coffin
After dipping his feet into the blockbuster pool with Wolverine: Origins and Ender’s Game, it is nice to see the return of Gavin Hood as a filmmaker whose cinematic skills are not only rooted in telling socially significant stories, but come through as his passion. Tsotsi was an excellent film and Ender’s Game clearly had some real world elements which simply didn’t translate well to the screen as a sci-fi analogy. But Eye in the Sky proves he is a director who wants to make films which aren’t just serious dramas, but motivate important discussions we should already be having every day. His new movie, Eye in the Sky (now in home entertainment release) shows a new maturity as a director, avoiding highlighting his technical flair and spotlighting flashy stars in favor of subtle direction and utilizing a large ensemble of character actors willing to bypass star turns and push focus to the core story-line and themes. Like a great chef, Hood clearly believes he has the superior ingredients needed to make a great movie, and now simply has to avoid the temptation to over do things.
The main ingredient here is the story, a moral conundrum you may have been asked in a college sociology class. International members of several governments and military officers believe they have found wanted, high ranking terrorists. Unable to bring them in alive, they have to go through miles of red tape to take a larger, more direct step and execute them. But while doing that, they see a child in the middle of it all. The premise comes up in the course of the film’s real-time plotting, and individuals from all areas of the British, American, and Kenya government discuss and debate the conundrum put before them about the morality of drone warfare they are currently engaged in. Can children really be considered collateral damage…and what do we really mean by acceptable risk?
The remarkable thing about this screenplay by Guy Hibbert’s is his ability to truly show all sides of the debate as reasonable and everyone engaged as decent people. Occasionally people seem petty or too indecisive considering their high ranking positions, but I honestly don’t believe he has written a single person who is actively or passively lacking concern for the greater welfare of the people of Kenya, the country, or potential victims. He knows that no matter what, the reality is, the question at hand is just so painfully sad because someone will always be in danger when faced with terrorists and suicide bombers. Hubert shows the human face of those making choices we can’t even dream of, and the emotional toil it takes on by all of them…no matter the ultimate decision reached.
Guy Hibbert is one of those screenwriters I’ve liked for sometime because he seems to embrace the opportunity to build a sense of cinematic tension, the kind we feel during traditional action thrillers, around moral questions and debates. Ever since making Shot Through the Heart almost 20 years ago, he’s been a screenwriter people should know better. And 2014’s Complicit was one of my favorite films of 2014, (with my favorite performance by David Owelowo to date). His scripts may be slow paced, but they are also intelligent, thought-provoking, and never shy away from moral ambiguity.
Hood and Hibbert are greatly helped in the casting of a truly international cast of character actors who seem happy to work as a true ensemble. Helen Mirren and Aaron Paul are being promoted as the leads in the film, and both are good (this might be Paul’s best feature film role), but there are no real stars to speak of in this film. Academy Award nominee Barked Abdi is great as a spy in the field; it is so great to see that his performance in Captain Philips has led to a role where he plays a heroic figure. Phoebe Fox is a find as Paul’s military drone flight partner, tortured over what she’s witnessing. And although it is sad to know this is the last on screen appearance from Alan Rickman, he ends his career not only on a high note, but playing a character whose fascinating mix of sentimentality and intellect that highlights what was so unique about Rickman. But the movie probably doesn’t have a bad performance in it…although there are some giggles at the sight of Michael O’Keefe in a brief cameo as an American politician (it’s just very abrupt moment in the film, but it ultimately works). And there is something unexpectedly brilliant that the two most demonstrative and outspoken individuals on either side of the debate are two strong, senior women; Mirren and Monica Dolan.
Speaking with a critic after seeing this film, he said there is concern that audiences will feel the moral choice (having the person in the crossfire be an innocent child) will be seen as just sentimental manipulation. I can understand that opinion and why some critics might feel that way, but personally, I think the stakes had to feel that high for the moral question to really be debated with as much intensity by he characters and audiences. Before and after these events, characters call out the fact that we too easily forget that there are other innocent people in the crossfires or call it collateral damage; they don’t just elicit the immediate reaction and outrage because we’ve been desensitized by ongoing wars and violence. I would point to the other recent drone warfare movie, A Good Kill, as an example of true manipulation in place of narrative logic and intellectual debate. Eye in the Sky is arguably the closest film I can remember to the cold war classic Fail Safe, and like that cinematic experience, there is no catharsis when faced with the hopelessness of war and the innocent victims in the middle of it.
Lesley Coffin: Is editor and founder of Movies, Film, Cinema. A writer with a masters degree from NYU’s Gallatin School in biographical studies and star theory. She wrote the biography on Lew Ayres (Lew Ayres: Hollywood’s Conscientious Objector) and Hitchcock’s Casting (Hitchcock’s Stars). Lesley currently freelances as a critic and interviewer for a number of sites, including regular contributions to The Interrobang, Pink Pen, and Young Folks, and previously wrote for The Mary Sue and Filmoria. (Twitter handle @filmbiographer, website lesleycoffin.com)