Tuesday, April 5, 2016

In Theaters: EYE IN THE SKY (2016)

(UK/Canada - 2016)

Directed by Gavin Hood. Written by Guy Hibbert. Cast: Helen Mirren, Aaron Paul, Alan Rickman, Barkhad Abdi, Jeremy Northam, Iain Glen, Phoebe Fox, Richard McCabe, Monica Dolan, Francis Chouler, Michael O'Keefe, Laila Robins, Babou Ceesay, Armaan Haggio, Aisha Takow, Faisa Hassan, Gavin Hood, Ebby Weyime, Jessica Jones, Lex King. (R, 102 mins)

An excellent ensemble piece that examines the war on terror without ever resorting to preachy pontification and ham-fisted political stances, EYE IN THE SKY is razor-sharp and relentlessly-paced, the kind of film where you'll lose count of how many times you find yourself holding your breath in edge-of-your-seat suspense. Working from a screenplay by Guy Hibbert (SHOT THROUGH THE HEART, FIVE MINUTES OF HEAVEN), South African director Gavin Hood (TSOTSI, the 2005 Oscar winner for Best Foreign Language Film) has explored similar areas before with 2007's RENDITION, but following Hollywood money gigs like X-MEN ORIGINS: WOLVERINE and the franchise non-starter ENDER'S GAME, EYE IN THE SKY is his most accomplished work yet. Not quite real-time but playing out over several hours, EYE takes place all over the globe but still feels confined and intensely claustrophobic, as drone surveillance over a safe house in Nairobi sets in motion a joint US/British/Kenyan military counter-terrorism operation. From the UK, Col. Katherine Powell (Helen Mirren) commands Las Vegas-stationed US Air Force drone pilot Steve Watts (Aaron Paul) to observe the safe house, with Kenyan intelligence agent Jama Farah (Barkhad Abdi) on the ground near the location. Two new recruits from the UK and the US are meeting with three high-ranking officials from a Somali terrorist organization, among them Powell's chief target, British-born Susan Danford (Lex King), who ran off to join the outfit six years earlier and changed her name to Ayesha Al-Hady. When Farah flies a small beetle drone into the safe house and everyone involved--Powell in Sussex, her boss Gen. Frank Benson (the late Alan Rickman) in London, Kenyan military, and US military in Vegas and at Pearl Harbor--see prepped suicide bombing vests, the mission escalates from capture to kill, with Watts and fellow pilot Carrie Gershon (Phoebe Fox) awaiting the order to bomb the target.

The problem: collateral damage in the surrounding residential slum, in particular a little girl (Aisha Takow), who's selling bread on the street corner right outside the safe house. While Powell and Benson believe bombing the safe house will ultimately save more lives than it will claim, a decision corroborated by the US Secretary of State (Michael O'Keefe), they're stonewalled by everyone from the British Minister of Defence (Jeremy Northam), the Prime Minister's Foreign Secretary (Iain Glen), and other politicos present, who feel that the fallout from a drone strike killing a little girl, and the possibility of the footage ending up on YouTube, could be a PR nightmare for the British government. While the clock ticks and the terrorists begin donning their suicide vests, the battery on the beetle drone dies and a decision must be made, a decision that can't be made when all of the politicians keep "referring up"--passing the buck to the next person of authority up the ladder in an attempt to dodge responsibility and avoid being the one who gets thrown under the bus. It's like a feature-length, drone warfare version of the MR. SHOW "Change for a Dollar" sketch.

Alan Rickman (1946-2016)
There's potential for some DR. STRANGELOVE-inspired satire, but Hood and Hibbert keep it serious with only a few overtly, intentionally funny bits of cynical humor, like Glen's Foreign Secretary being hobbled by food poisoning and diarrhea in Singapore, where he's attending the opening of a conglomerate with the acronym "I.B.S." The absurdly evasive and frequently cowardly indecisiveness of the politicians, the seething outrage of Mirren's Powell (who sort-of becomes this film's Gen. Jack D. Ripper, if you want to make STRANGELOVE comparisons), and the exasperated, eye-rolling frustration of Rickman's Benson (the much-missed actor is superb in his final onscreen appearance; his voice will be heard in the upcoming ALICE THROUGH THE LOOKING GLASS) provide scattered moments of mostly nervous laughter for the audience, but for the most part, EYE IN THE SKY is played FAIL-SAFE straight and is nerve-wrackingly intense, which is not something one can normally say about a war film where most of the characters are sitting around staring at laptops, sending instant messages, getting on the phone, and watching massive HD monitors on the wall. It also earns points for a pulls-no-punches ending that almost certainly would've been dumped and re-shot had a major studio picked this up instead of the upstart indie Bleecker Street Films. You don't hear the term "crackerjack thriller" used much these days, because so few thrillers are worthy of the label. EYE IN THE SKY fits the bill, a film for grown-ups that's smart, well-acted, tightly-plotted, fast-moving, and admirably uncompromising.

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