Eye in the Sky may be the most timely film released this year, exploring the thorny repercussions of international foreign policy, and the cost of an innocent human life- made all the more prescient due to a stunning central performance from one of 2016’s many celebrity casualties, Alan Rickman. This year will go down in history as being defined by conflicting opinions on foreign policy in the Western world and the George R.R Martin-style numbers of celebrities who keep passing away. Eye in the Sky feels incredibly of the moment because of both these reasons, albeit accidentally. This doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be applauded for turning a complex issue into easily digestible popcorn blockbuster fodder that appeals to the masses.
South African director Gavin Hood is no stranger to socially conscious filmmaking; his 2005 film Tsotsi won the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film, finding emotional uplift in a gritty story about members of a young slum gang. Since then, however, he’s drifted in to being a “director for hire” for big budget Hollywood movies that were widely liked by approximately nobody. X-Men Origins: Wolverine is fondly remembered as the worst in the franchise- Hood himself believed that it was satirical about the philosophy inherent in the Bush administration, proving that even as he’s making soulless, generic, absolutely awful films, his socio-political values are so inherent he’s imagining subtexts in his own films where they aren’t even present.
With Eye in the Sky he not only achieves a return to form, but perfects the balance of political insight and exhilarating mainstream thriller his previous films have mostly failed to achieve. The multi-stranded narrative focuses on a mission to capture some of the planet’s most wanted religious extremists in a “friendly” country. Colonel Katherine Powell (Helen Mirren) is leading an operation to gain intelligence in order to capture them, fearing they are planning a mass suicide bombing.
With the help of an undercover field agent (Barkhad Abdi) and his Bond-style tech, they discover a bombing may occur sooner than they thought. With the co-operation of two drone pilots in the US (led by Aaron Paul) and supervising from COBRA in London, Lieutenant General Frank Benson (Alan Rickman), the simple issue of preventing extremism soon gets trickier as surveillance shows a young girl moving outside the extremist’s hideout selling bread. What follows is a chilling study of whether the cost of one life is as strong as the cost of the lives of hypothetical hundreds of innocent victims.
One of the criticisms of the film is how its multi-stranded narrative fails to humanise any of the central characters, not fleshing them out beyond their respective job titles. I think this is partly why Eye in the Sky works- in the course of debating the saving of a single human life, they all become effectively dehumanised, abstract sketches of humanity that now possess God-like powers, looking down from above. If you feel detached from their personalities, that is effectively as they are detached from the lives they are attempting to save; it has made them emotionally numb to the scale of the warfare, only showing how much it is taking a toll as the film progresses to a masterful third act.
For a film that is effectively “de-humanised”, it is remarkable how it is a showcase for several compelling acting performances, frequently resembling a stage play due to how much it pirouettes off of the strength of the ensemble cast. Best of all is Alan Rickman, who in his penultimate screen performance gives one of his strongest performances in a long and illustrious career. You can see him suppressing emotion in every scene, his character straining to show how little the consequences of a military career have effected him.
The character isn’t affected by PTSD, but any other actor would have played this role in that manner- Rickman underplays throughout, helping to give the film a zeal of moral ambiguity that ensures it never threatens to become uninteresting. Of the towering central performances, Aaron Paul is arguably the weakest, if only because his character arc is the one that flirts most frequently with a lack of emotional restraint; every moment spent with the drone pilots seems to rob the film of the aforementioned moral ambiguity that makes it so compelling to watch.
If anything, the central flaw in the film is flirting with broad comedy. I have no problems with the film taking the route of adrenaline-fuelled thriller to appeal to a wide audience, but the comedic asides aren’t misjudged, so much as bizarre inclusions. The British Foreign Secretary (played by GoT’s Iain Glen) spends the majority of the running time on the toilet after food poisoning in Singapore, a cheap, overplayed laugh that undoes the darker satirical stings elsewhere in the screenplay. The US Secretary of State is responsible for the one, solid joke, merely telling his British counterparts to get on with the drone-bombing and wondering why they spend so much time worrying when they could be killing- before returning to a ping pong match seconds later. As a satire of US foreign policy, this scene alone hints that the rest of the film could easily have possessed a deeper satirical bite.
Even as it occasionally aspires to dark comedy, the movie still succeeds as being the feel-bad mainstream film of the year. Expertly exploring the thorny repercussions of modern warfare in a way that fully de-politicises and transforms into a humanist tract, it is eye opening. For many viewers, it is unlikely you’ll have the same view on the issue walking out as you did walking in.