Friday, March 25, 2016

Eye in the Sky: A riveting real-world thriller

Eye in the Sky (2015) • View trailer 
4.5 stars. Rated R, for dramatic intensity, profanity and violent images

By Derrick Bang

Guy Hibbert’s thoughtful screenplay has the unsettling intensity of an immaculately crafted stage play.

Helen Mirren, as Col. Katherine Powell
Indeed, I can see this being a great play, even though its primary characters are spread out across the globe. An imaginative director could handle that detail, much the way Gavin Hood has choreographed this big-screen drama with such authoritative snap.

Eye in the Sky is a taut, up-to-the-minute geo-political thriller that belongs in the company of 1960s Cold War classics such as Fail Safe and Seven Days in May, and more recent efforts such as Thirteen Days and Munich. At its core, Hibbert’s script — which he wrote back in 2008, making it even more cutting-edge — is a study of actions and consequences: to what degree, if any, a desired end justifies the means to obtain it.

Hibbert’s approach is what makes the result so riveting: This is a “process thriller” very much in the mold of 2011’s Margin Call. That film gave us a talking-heads glimpse of the primary players at a Wall Street investment firm who, during the course of 24 hours, watch helplessly as their own previous actions precipitate the 2008 meltdown. You’d think such back-room financial commentary and analysis would be boring, but that was far from the case; the excellent cast brought compelling tension to every aspect of writer/director J.C. Chandor’s script.

As Margin Call was to the 2008 economic crisis, Eye in the Sky is to digital-age drone warfare.

British Col. Katherine Powell (Helen Mirren), waking early one morning at her cozy home in Sussex, assumes her decidedly un-cozy duties at a nearby military base. This is likely to be a crucial day: She has been tracking, for six years, a particularly notorious British citizen-turned-terrorist — a radicalized young woman — who is expected to attend a meeting at an Al-Shabaab safe house in a bustling Nairobi neighborhood.

As a bonus, this target is expected to be in the company of at least one other terrorist ranked high on the British/American “most wanted” list.

The developing situation is being monitored from the sky by a surveillance drone piloted by American soldiers at Creech Air Force Base in Nevada, and at ground level by Nairobi anti-terrorist personnel. Facial recognition identification, if such an opportunity arises, will be confirmed by an American military analyst stationed in Hawaii. All are in constant contact with Powell.

She, in turn, passes this intel along to her commanding officer, Lt. Gen. Frank Benson (Alan Rickman, in his final performance), who is spending the day in a London conference room, where he shares these same details with upper-echelon British government overseers. The intention, at every moment, is to follow protocol and chain of command, while adhering to legal justification.

All these players are assembled to monitor a pre-approved “capture mission” that will be coordinated by the Nairobi ground troops. Powell, in charge of the operation, waits only for verification that her targets have arrived.

Phoebe Fox and Aaron Paul, as Steve Watts and Carrie Gershon
The drone is being controlled by veteran pilot Steve Watts (Aaron Paul) and raw recruit Carrie Gershon (Phoebe Fox). They’re expecting nothing beyond a routine surveillance shift, adjusting the drone’s position and relaying images according to Powell’s requests.

During an idle moment, Watts and Gershon are captivated by a 9-year-old girl, caught on the drone’s camera, who delights in a homemade hula-hoop. As viewers, we’ve already spent a bit of time with this girl, Alia (Aisha Takow), and her parents. Her father is progressive, and is home-schooling his daughter: a dangerous practice, given the Al-Shabaab presence.

Back in London, everybody watches as vehicles arrive at the terrorist compound. People get out, but — vexingly — they never face any of the several clandestine overhead and ground-level surveillance cameras.

Powell needs a better look: a request passed along to Nairobi-based spy Jama Farah (Barkhad Abdi). It’s a dangerous mission, as the watchful, omnipresent Al-Shabaab guards have made a point of getting to know everybody who actually lives in the neighborhood. Still, Farah manages to get close enough to send a wirelessly controlled “beetle” — a miniaturized, flying “insect camera” — into the house.

(This way-cool “beetle” — and a related surveillance “hummingbird” — are the script’s only reliance on science-fiction. At least, I don’t think such gadgets actually exist...)

What the beetle’s camera reveals changes everything. The good news is that the assembled terrorists include a third individual also on the “most wanted” list. The bad news is that the assembled group is readying two suicide vests, with the obvious intention of wreaking havoc on some nearby high-population “soft target.”

Powell insists that the intended “capture” mission must be upgraded to “kill”: no logistical problem, as the drone is equipped with missiles. But at this point, Benson must debate nuanced rules of engagement with his now-panicky civilian overseers, who aren’t inclined to grant approval; fearful of legal issues that might lead to a charge of war crimes, people start kicking the decision upstairs.

All the while, the terrorists calmly load the suicide vests.

Then, to make matters even worse, Alia leaves her home laden with freshly baked bread, walks around the corner and sets up “shop” at a streetside table ... directly outside the Al-Shabaab compound.

The resulting argument, utterly agonizing, can be seen both ways; Hibbert’s script takes no obvious sides. On the one hand, we’d love to think that our military commanders would value the life of an innocent little girl; on the other hand, it’s insane to place her life above the goal of preventing a much greater loss of life.

In theory, civilian overseers fulfill a necessary role, to prevent egregious behavior on the part of military hawks. In practice, ham-stringing knowledgeable military personnel to the second-guessing whims of bleeding-heart liberals — as typified here by Monica Dolan’s overstated Angela Northman (a slightly exaggerated misstep on Hood’s part) — seems the height of lunacy.

Sir William Blackstone, back in 1765, famously opined “Better that 10 guilty persons escape, than one innocent suffer.”

Mr. Spock, in 1982’s Star Trek: The Wrath of Khan, insisted that “the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few.”

And so the argument rages. And the clock ticks.

Hibbert ingeniously stretches this situation across 102 minutes of nail-biting suspense, adding ever-more-clever layers of doubt, delays, work-arounds and attempted solutions; Hood and editor Megan Gill play us viewers like a violin.

By the second act, we’re also riveted by the various performances, starting with Mirren’s Col. Powell. She’s completely persuasive as a pragmatic military commander, her features displaying frustration with those who can’t (won’t?) understand the need for an immediate strike, while simultaneously controlling her voice and words, in order not to offend or annoy. Powell’s aggravation is palpable, and Mirren’s expressive gaze shifts subtly, splendidly, each time Powell concocts a new way to “massage” the situation.

From left, Jack Cleary (Francis Chouler), Brian Woodale (Jeremy Northam) and
Lt. Gen. Frank Benson (Alan Rickman)
Rickman, similarly, is spot-on as Benson. This role initially is a droll bit of misdirection: As introduced, Benson seems an absent-minded old-timer past his sale date, fussing over the proper doll to get for some young relative. But once in the conference room, Rickman’s bearing shifts, his laser-gaze and immaculately controlled diction employed to increasingly powerful effect.

Rickman gets more dramatic heft, in one scene, out of a single three-syllable word — “Mi-nis-ter!” — than other cast members with lengthy speeches.

If we had to lose him, this is — without question — a superb final performance.

It’s great to see Abdi again, ably demonstrating that his Oscar-nominated role as a Somali pirate in Captain Phillips wasn’t a one-off. Aside from our concerns about little Alia, every move that Farah makes is a heart-in-mouth moment, his proximity to the Al-Shabaab guards being so dangerous. Abdi sells it: Although clearly terrified, Farah recognizes the importance of his mission ... and embraces it, to the best of his ability.

Smaller roles are clever studies in opposites. Fox plays Gershon as a newbie (almost) overwhelmed by the moral enormity of this first day on the job: a shift that should have been boringly routine. In turn, her “overly emotional” character is offset by Kim Engelbrecht’s Hawaii-based Lucy Galvez, calmly and clinically analyzing the facial recognition software.

The various upper-echelon British government officials are engaging blends of officious, uncertain and impatient. And you’ve gotta smile when a high-level Washington advisor weighs in, with a crisply worded opinion that says everything about what these British filmmakers think about us Americans.

We’re constantly challenged by the weight of Hibbert’s various narrative issues and contrivances. One line is particularly telling: the notion that, these days, one can have absolute legal justification on one’s side ... but still “lose” in the social-media fueled court of public opinion.

I’m also reminded of one of the myths of the American Revolution: that advancing, bright-red British soldiers in rigorous formation were picked off by clever, dark-clad American colonists shooting from concealment behind rocks and trees, and how the British therefore complained that we Americans “weren’t fighting fair.” Although history suggests that this wasn’t true to a significant degree, the “lesson” endures ... and the obvious reality is that today’s terrorists clearly “don’t fight fair” when they mass-slaughter innocents.

What, then, is the answer?

Hood and Hibbert aren’t telling. But they sure know how to frame the debate.

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