A pitch-perfect cast, screenplay, and story make Eye in the Sky one of the best — if not the best — movie of the year
There are thrillers, and then there are thrillers like Eye in the Sky. What kind of thriller? It’s one that’s not just a treat for the eye but for the brain. It’s one that understands that less is more. It’s one that doesn’t compromise story for dramatics. It’s one that is so effective that not only did it keep me on the edge of my seat, it kept Brian and I in a morality debate after the movie that mirrored the debacle that the characters themselves were having.
Told in what is essentially real time, Eye in the Sky follows the multiple people involved in making the decision to launch a drone strike on a compound containing numbers two, four, and five on the British most wanted list in Africa. However, to complicate matters, a little girl is standing within the blast zone. Even worse, the occupants of the compound are preparing for a suicide bombing. From the government to military to the drone pilot himself, everyone has a hand in deciding whether or not to risk the life of one to save the life of many. It’s a classic morality tale, but it’s told in a way that will even make you question your judgment.
In all, the large ensemble can be split up into two camps: the military and the government. On the military side, Colonel Katherine Powell (Helen Mirren) is in charge of an intelligence division that is tracking two British citizens and one American citizen who have become radicalized Islamic extremists in Kenya and members of Al-Shabaab. With the help of American 2nd Lieutenant Steve Watts (Aaron Paul), who is piloting an unmanned drone, she tracks them down to a safe house where they are preparing for a suicide bombing.
Originally a capture only mission, Powell realizes the only way to prevent a suicide bombing and stop the these terrorists is to elevate the mission to a kill order. However, like any drone strike, there is a long chain of higher-ups that have to have a say in deciding. This brings in the other half of the ensemble, which is led by Lieutenant General Frank Benson (Alan Rickman in one of his last performances). Along with members of COBRA (England’s equivalent of our war room), he must determine whether the collateral damage is legal and politically maneuverable — will they be able to control the propaganda war?
The decision seems clear. That is until a little girl makes her way into the blast zone.
This little girl’s name is Alia. Throughout the movie, we watch her and her family go throughout their daily lives. Obviously, it was a smart move to humanize Alia and her family without treating her as actual collateral damage. What Eye in the Sky does so intelligently is contextualize her in the world she’s living in. Any filmmaker would have humanized her. Not every filmmaker would show that she is affected by the war in a way that we couldn’t even imagine.
We are treated to an incredible and lengthy decision-making process that affects everyone involved in different ways. Heart, brain, morals, ethics — all are considered. Colonel Powell is an interesting character, in particular, because she has the attitude of shoot first, ask questions later. For her, there isn’t a question of the risk. She sees her target, one that has affected her personally, and will do anything in her power to stop it. On a side note, it’s refreshing because her gender doesn’t come into play here. The part could have easily been played by a man and still worked just the same. It’s gender-blind casting at its best.
Then, there is Lieutenant Watts and his US Air Force colleague Carrie Gershon come from the place of the heart. They are the trigger. However, they are almost powerless to the decision that comes from the brain, COBRA. They come from more political motivations, but morality comes into play as well. It’s an intricate puzzle of characters that create one of the greatest discussions ever committed to film.
The screenplay, which is by BAFTA winner Guy Hibbert, is an exercise in efficient storytelling. He doesn’t bog down the story with unnecessary personal details — except for one involving Rickman’s character which greatly affects your perception of his character. The dialogue is fast and smart, and the characters are explored so deeply, despite spending little time with each. We know their motivations, and we know why they are making the decisions they are making. The cast, in particular, Mirren, Paul, Rickman, and Fox, does much of the heavy lifting on that part. And director Gavin Hood does a beautiful job capturing the moments in the film that truly matter and stitching together the narrative (that involves footage from the drone and surveillance cameras) in a way that makes it move a mile a minute.
Nevertheless, what makes Eye in the Sky so brilliant is not the tight screenplay or the ambitious narrative or the phenomenal performances across the board; it’s the careful study of this one decision from multiple points of view that makes it one of the best — if not the best — movie of the year. A lesser director or screenwriter might have fumbled their opportunity to make this plot meaningful without being condescending. Instead, the team behind Eye in the Sky adeptly blur the line between good and evil and what constitutes a necessary evil.
It’s unfortunate that this movie didn’t get in front of the audience it deserved. If it did, I’d imagine that it’d be a shoo-in for a Best Picture nomination and several others. However, it does please me to know that this level of filmmaking still exists, and that this type of storytelling is one that hasn’t been quite abandoned. It’s entertaining as both a political and war drama. But it’s the movie’s balancing of both that elevates it to a level that few movies are able to achieve. In the end, the movie leaves the question with you: how far do you go when it comes to war.