Saturday, May 07, 2016

Film Notes: Eye In The Sky

It's a long time since I have been as completely absorbed by a film as I was by this - and I've seen some good films over the last few months too. Eye In The Sky is a political/drama/thriller which seeks to open up debate about the use of drones in war - which is an extremely important issue today. Broadly speaking, in that debate there are 'hawks', who believe that the so-called 'war on terror' justifies such strikes, even if there is 'collateral damage' (ie dead innocent people). Then there are 'doves', who oppose drone strikes, deplore the deaths of the innocent, believe that they bring western governments down to the same moral level as the terrorists - to whom they also hand huge propaganda victories.

Eye In The Sky brings this debate to life, with a tense narrative constructed around one particular drone strike against Al Shabbab terrorists in East Africa. The story is obviously inspired by the infamous shopping centre atrocity associated with British terrorist nicknamed The White Widow. The dilemma faced by military and political leaders is simply this; they believe that the terrorists (if allowed to live), will imminently kill up to 80 people. However, if they kill them, they will probably kill an innocent bystander - a beautiful little African girl, innocently selling bread in the blast zone. The 80 or 1 death probability, is complicated by the fact that
the 80 would be someone else's guilt; whereas the one would be on the hands of the main characters. Worse, the electorate would not worry about the 80, but might object to the 1.

As this situation spirals into more and more morally complex territory, the different personalities around the decision making table adopt differing positions. Helen Mirren is superb as the hawkish army chief, who is absolutely convinced that taking out these would-be suicide bombers is right. Doggedly pursuing her agenda, and arranging the facts to fit her case, she is unflinching in her soldierly belief that killing saves lives. Relaying the military perspective to government is a splendid Alan Rickman (his final film role), who grows weary of having to deal with vacillating politicians. The politicians, such as the defence minister portrayed by Jeremy Northam, continually 'refer-up' the chain of command, trying to pass the buck. Aisha Takow is superb as the Alia, the innocent in the line of fire, as is Barkhab Abdi, as the Kenyan military undercover operative. Other notable acting credits go to Aaron Paul and Phoebe Fox, who play the drone-pilots, who have to carry out the orders they are given, even when doing so shatters their psyche.

When I saw that a film has been made about the moral debate surrounding drone strikes, I assumed that it would be a straightforward dennounciation of the practice, with a strong focus on the innocent victims, and an array of gung-ho (yeee-har!) hawks, desperate for blood. In fact, what is presented is a finely balanced, and totally gripping drama; which although contrived, makes the viewer lurch between the two opinions back-and-forth several times in the course of the film. Interestingly, people I have spoken to have not been in
uniform agreement as to which side of the debate the film is ultimately on.

Some of the dialogue is brilliant. One stunning moment is the verbal conflict between the hawkish Lieutenant General Frank Benson (Alan Rickman), and the dove-ish junior minister, Angela Northman. (Monica Dolan). She finds his attitude of wanting to order killings from his armchair, "disgusting". He barks back that he's stood next to corpses in the immediate aftermath of five suicide bombings, and that she should, "never tell a soldier that he doesn't know the cost of war."

As time to prevent a suicide bombing ticks away, the tension mounts, as the fateful decision still isn't made. Without giving away the ending, the plot boils to an intense crescendo, as finally someone has to made a
decision to take innocent life; or allow others to take many more. The tension as the knife-edge decision is reached is extraordinary, carried along by intelligent writing, a good script and superb acting. At one point, I found myself gripping the arms of the chair tightly - as if on a roller-coaster.

Stunned, amazed, and perplexed by what we had seen, my wife and I stepped out of the DCA Cinema in Dundee. Blinking into the bright sunlight, we debated the film all the way home. Almost a week later, there are images from this film that seem almost burned into my memory. This is a really very, very good film.

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