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August 14, 2020

Eye in the Sky is a refreshing, earnest drama

By TIM FREBORG | April 14, 2016

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gage skidmore/cc-by-sa-2.0 Helen Mirren portrays Colonel Katherine Powell, who is in charge of a top secret drone operation in Kenya.

Ender’s Game

Starring top class actors (including one of the last performances from the ever-masterful Alan Rickman), Eye in the Sky is a heartfelt, tense and thought-provoking piece that is well worth the price of admission.

In the mid-to-late spring season, when cinema hits one of its many annual dry seasons, it is always a joy to find a film that stands out amid a smattering of humdrum releases.

Last year, I found myself pleasantly surprised by Ex Machina, the intellectual sci-fi drama that, in this reviewer’s opinion, received far less attention than it deserved. This year, it is Eye in the Sky that rises to the occasion, sporting all of the power, drama and expert construction one could hope for, with a fair bit of topicality thrown in.

The story of Eye in the Sky is one told from many perspectives across many locales and addresses an issue well-known within wartime ethics debates: drone warfare. Colonel Katherine Powell (Helen Mirren), a British officer based in Sussex, oversees an operation in Nairobi, Kenya to capture a pair of extremists that her force has been investigating for some time.

Initially, all seems well as her undercover operatives, including a drone pilot named Steve Watts (Aaron Paul) and a ground operative named Jama Farah (Barkhad Abdi), successfully track the targets to a safe house in a scene so dripping with technology and atmosphere that it wouldn’t be out of place in some of the most legendary spy films.

Once they have located the targets, however, the mission takes an unforeseen turn when they discover the pair preparing weapons and explosives for a potential suicide bombing. Changing the mission parameters from “arrest” to “kill,” Powell’s team is ready to blow the entire operation sky high with a targeted precision drone strike.

However, their hand is temporarily stayed when surveillance captures footage of a young girl (Aisha Takow) just outside the building, selling bread and enjoying the day. The question then arises: Is the strike worth the cost, and is it a cost they are willing to pay?

Contrary to what one might think about a film based on military drone strikes (especially considering this film’s tense opening sequence does its best to convey that classic action-spy-thriller atmosphere), the action within this film is surprisingly quiet and subdued for the most part. Most of the characters (Abdi’s character being the biggest exception) are far from the target site, behind screens and desks, and the film makes absolutely sure that we as the audience know that.

Much of the film is spent on conversation and contemplation, with various far-off parties weighing in from various perspectives on the implications of their potential action or lack of action. As a consequence, the film takes it upon itself to address questions not only of collateral damage and the moral implications thereof, but also of the disconnect between the decision makers and the consequences of their choices.

The answers to these questions are not simple, and the film does not insult the audience’s intelligence by boiling the issue down to a black and white binary. Through the excellent performances of the film’s cast (primarily Rickman who, though in a minor role, stands heads above his colleagues in performance), the film’s moral dilemmas are tackled through a number of lenses, through various channels, each leading down ever-deeper rabbit holes.

And while it is difficult to describe the thought-provoking tapestry this film weaves without spoiling crucial moments, one can address the biggest advantage the film has — a lack of satisfaction — and this is perhaps the first time I have used that as a compliment.

There is a power to Eye in the Sky on a moral and emotional level that derives from its refusal to offer a clean solution. It will not shy away from grim reality (though admittedly aspects of the film’s premise and storytelling may be a touch manipulative and oversimplified, but this is a minor gripe at most). The film will force the viewer to think and to draw their own conclusions on the scenario.

And, regardless of the conclusions the viewer reaches, one result is guaranteed: The film will tug at your heartstrings until they hurt and then it will keep going. Whether that is something audiences enjoy or would rather avoid remains in the eye of the viewer. In the eyes of this reviewer, it would be a tragedy to overlook Eye in the Sky.

Overall Rating: 9/10

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