Friday, April 1, 2016

'Eye in the Sky' review

After last year's Good Kill, which also tackled the subject of drone strikes, are we looking at the birth of a new war subgenre? It's a possibility. As I said last year in my review of Andrew Niccol's eerie Ethan Hawke character study, drones are a massively controversial topic and one that we'll be dealing with in our modern world for a long time. Eye in the Sky is the second major movie to directly take on this topic, bringing an intense situation vividly to the big screen. Unfortunately, the latest film from director Gavin Hood slips into tedium more often than not. Neither as chillingly alien as Good Kill nor as painstakingly tense as a film like Captain Phillips, Eye in the Sky exists in a weird cinematic space. The film presents itself and its scenario to the audience and then it just sits there. With little in the way of character development or complex plot mechanics, Eye in the Sky is a morality play writ on a modern scale that struggles to involve the viewer in its story.

Colonel Katherine Powell (Helen Mirren) is a top ranking British military officer, leading the charge against Al Shabab terrorism in the Horn of Africa (specifically Kenya and Somalia). After years of searching and targeting, Powell finally has three high ranking terrorists in her grasp, including a British citizen who turned to radicalism named Susan Danford (Lex King). She's set to capture these targets with the help of the Kenyan military and under the surveillance of the U.S. and British governments, led by Lt. General Frank Benson (Alan Rickman, terrific in one of his final roles) and a team of high-ranking British policy advisors. Unfortunately, the situation isn't as clear-cut as it once seemed to be.

Thanks to a fly camera from Kenyan ally Jama (Captain Phillips' Barkhad Abdi), Powell and her team realize that her targets are gearing up for a suicide bombing, which makes the mission a "Shoot to Kill" scenario. Gunner Steve Watts (Aaron Paul) is at the ready, but another new development makes things complicated- a young girl is selling bread in the immediate range of the strike. The team makes decision to try to move the young girl from the area, but it's a constant struggle that puts everyone in danger. With collateral damage a distinct possibility, Powell and the leaders of the free world will need to weigh the costs of the strike and make a decision that could change the trajectory of warfare forever.

In all of the basic filmmaking aspects, Eye in the Sky is efficiently and soundly made. Gavin Hood keeps a masterful lid on the action, and when you mix that in with the strong, lens flare heavy cinematography of Haris Zambarloukos and the occasionally electrifying score, you have a movie that works pretty well. But there's an odd feeling that runs throughout Eye in the Sky. It's almost like Hood and screenwriter Guy Hibbert build a wall between the audience and the characters in the film. The basic premise is taut and suspenseful and yet, I felt none of that. There's a disconnect at the heart of this film that hinders its effectiveness, causing the impact of the scenario-driven story to be lessened. And I think that it all leads back to one thing.

In Eye in the Sky, the characters have very little definition. We know next to nothing about them. Helen Mirren is good as Powell, but her character is a thin shell. Mirren's Powell is determined and resolute to take out these villains because.......well, she's tired of having to chase them. That's essentially the vibe that I was picking up from the movie. Powell has been on the hunt for Danford and her crew for years, and now that they're within her reach, she just wants to fire the shot. Rickman's Benson has a little more character and humanity- when we first meet him, he's struggling to buy the right doll for his daughter (or granddaughter, the movie never specifies). And yet unfortunately, the late brilliant actor is stuck asking questions to other characters for most of the runtime, facilitating discussion as the movie lumbers on.

Aaron Paul has the most emotional role in the movie as the pilot with a conscious, but somehow, Hibbert's screenplay still can't give us much to care about. We know nothing about Steve Watts beyond the fact that he's been a drone pilot for 6 months, and that makes it hard to realize or care why he has such a strong dilemma here. Phoebe Fox's Carrie Gershon works well alongside Watts as the freshfaced recruit, and yet, we once again know nothing about her. So with very few characters that have a motivation or connection beyond legal ramifications, Eye in the Sky ends up feeling like something entirely new and bizarre. For lack of a better term, it feels like a moral procedural, which I'm not sure was intentional.

Eye in the Sky has a great premise and solid execution, but it isn't exactly clear what it wants to be. Is there a message? Is Hood taking a side in the drone battle? Is the movie meant to be a pure procedural that just tells it like it is? Or are there some satirical messages sprinkled throughout? The thing is, the movie never really decides. It just sorta throws the movie up on the screen and says to the audience "Here ya go, figure it out." The movie happens, then it's over and you're left to take what you just saw and make something out of it. And depending on your inclinations as a viewer, you'll either love that or hate it. The movie presents itself as something that will linger in your mind for several days, allowing you to ponder these intense and rich questions. But even in the hours after seeing the film, it has nearly faded from my mind because the impact is so muted. It's great to throw out meaningful questions, yet when there's little that draws you into the movie that is asking those questions, it becomes a problem.

Despite my numerous issues and the fact that most of the time, the strategies used by the film don't work, there are occasional moments where the questions posed by Hood and Hibbert transcend philosophical think, helping the film to use those issues to great effect. The setup for the drone strike dilemma is a bit contrived and goofy, but there's no doubt that Eye in the Sky is at its best when it confronts war with realism and clear eyes. The situation presented in the film is tough and gripping and there are times when Rickman and Mirren elevate the material to a stirring level. These are the decisions that are made on a daily basis, and when the officials in the war room start discussing the propaganda war and the ramifications of one civilian casualty, it became clear to me that there's a striking sense of transparency in this film's treatment of the new frontier of war.

And yet, those moments of clarity and precision are few and far between amid a sea of somewhat dull discussions over the repercussions of a single event. For 102 minutes, Eye in the Sky is a lot of government people using government speak to talk about a political move. It's like watching that scene in the American Sniper trailer, except it's stuck in a full-length movie. That sounds appealing initially, but I'm confident in saying that many viewers will be significantly let down. It's far from a bad movie, it's just that I know this topic can be handled in a way that involves the audience in a deeper, more meaningful way. While Eye in the Sky has flashes of greatness, it all ends up feeling a bit stale and tiresome.

THE FINAL GRADE:  C+                                            (6.4/10)

Image Credits: Telegraph, Variety, NPR, NY Post, Joblo

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