Sunday, 15 May 2016

Eye In The Sky (2016, UK)

“If they kill 80 people, we win the propaganda war. If we kill one child, they do”
An exciting and yet deep film about warfare in the 21st century and the toll it has on those prosecuting it. The best film of 2016 so far.
The last decade and a half since 9/11 has forced us all to confront the evil within and without – confronting the seemingly limitless cruelty and organised evil of those who mistake violence for coherent politics. In another age, it was the IRA, Tamil Eelam and ETA, while today it is ISIS, al-Shabaab and others. In Eye in the Sky, Gavin Hood (Director), Guy Hibbert (writer) and an all-star cast explore the reality of engaging with this asymmetrical warfare and the toll it takes on those who prosecute it. This film is a real gem – it engages head-on with the political and moral questions this entails but doesn’t forget to thrill and entertain the audience. All in all, the best film of 2016 so far.

The story (and you’re dropped right in the middle of it) revolves around Helen Mirren’s team, which has identified and located a highly wanted terrorist (three of them eventually) who, as the movie keeps telling us, are numbers 2,3 and 6 on the “East Africa hitlist” of terrorists. Mirren plays the military Colonel leading this operation in cahoots with American drone operators, Kenyan police (this taking place in Nairobi) and several members of the British political and military establishment. What follows is a mixture of engrossing spy action interspersed with the film holding a discourse amongst its main characters about what is morally justifiable.

The only real ‘protagonist’ in this film is Helen Mirren’s character, who has spent years tracking this suspect and is very eager to get her ‘mark’ – by hook or by crook. Her understandable frustration at being held back due to bureaucracy and indecision causes her to bully one of her subordinates to produce the ‘risks assessment’ that would allow her to carry out the strike. Her political masters would like to demonstrate progress on the war on terror but without the political fallout that this entails. The Defence Secretary’s dithering on whether to authorise the strike is well fleshed out, with a simple conundrum at its heart: order the drone strike and you get the praise of ‘beating’ the terrorists, but you also run the risk of being considered the butcher who killed a small child in order to get at a terrorist. Or don’t order a strike but then risk the suicide bombers killing hundreds in a crowded market. 

This part of the movie works because the politicians’ choices really matter: there are only difficult choices and the film does not stand in judgement for whatever choices they make.
Meanwhile, there are the Kenyans whose lives are actually at risk because they are tracking the terrorists on the ground. There’s Aaron Paul & Phoebe Fox, the drone team, who are carrying out their first drone kill. Then there’s the character who unwittingly becomes the focal point of the entire exercise: a young girl (‘Alia’) shows up right next to the compound where the drone is meant to strike – apparently drone strike rules require risk-assessments to be carried out and collateral damage to be minimised. What follows is an extremely tense and bureaucratic back-and-forth discourse between Aaron Paul, Barkhad Abdi, Helen Mirren and Alan Rickman as they somehow attempt to get her to leave the area before they can strike. Mirren’s emphatic insistence on staying the course and completing the strike is in stark contrast to Aaron Paul’s emotional but honourable need to protect the one and only person he could in this bad, complicated world.

As you can guess from this, this is a complex set-up and it pulls no punches: rather than use a small number of composite characters (i.e. rolling 2 or 3 characters into 1), the film insists on showing us how this would actually work in real life, with a long list of people involved and in some cases for literally a few minutes of screen time. The film’s greatest triumph is how it respects its audience’s intelligence: asking us to embrace ambiguity, nuance and some complexity without being so complex as to require multiple views (like, say, Primer). There is no mystery here about who did what. This may well be why the film hasn’t done as well financially as you might expect from a spy film. A traditional movie like Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy made $80m, while EITS has barely touched $30m several weeks into its run.

The main reason for this must be the somewhat static nature of most of the action: most of the action happens through phonecalls and video calls wherein we visit a total of eight (yes, eight) different locations, each with a different feel. There’s the British politicians and military personnel in an office in London, who are brimming with indecision and sweaty underarms at the thought of having to kill people, the American drone pilot in a desert outpost in Nevada who has his own attack of conscience, the Kenyan agents working diligently near the target in Nairobi and even a short and humorous detour in Singapore with the British Foreign Secretary, who due to food poisoning has to take the all-important drone strike call on the toilet.

Why is this film a cut above the rest?

The film has an intellectual honesty that is very refreshing – nobody is portrayed as the bad guy and everybody is just trying to do their jobs. In another movie, the drone operators or Mirren’s character would ride roughshod over everybody in her bloodlust. But what actually happens is that almost everybody involved bends over backwards to save this girl’s life and yet still execute the mission. Mirren’s character jumps through hoops to get the strike she needs, spurred on by the drone pilot, played so humanely by Aaron Paul, who stands up to Mirren’s character by demanding a fresh ‘risk assessment’ when Alia shows up (within the blast radius) to sell her bread.

The film does a good job of showing the reality of drone strikes - this is a complex, multi-layered operation requiring risk assessments, legal opinions, Ministerial approval and co-operation with local forces. I walked away from this film wondering how drone strikes ever happen, given the long chain of command. The political advisors in London debate the political aspect of using a drone strike – if this sounds incongruous when lives are in the balance, it shouldn’t be. Continuing any war requires keeping the public on board, and if the public discovers that you killed a small child in your pursuit of terrorists, it eventually becomes hard to carry on.

The film is particularly smart because it portrays even ancillary characters with nuance: even Alia’s father, who is barely on screen until the end, demonstrates emotional depth and an understanding of his environment, while maintaining his love for his daughter. Then there’s Barkhad Abdi’s character, who goes above and beyond in order to ensure the mission’s success and is the very definition of a vital cog in the machine.
The last scene of the film is so perceptive and smart that I wished I had a hat to tip: the injured child was being taken to the hospital by the very al-Shabaab militants that Helen Mirren’s chums were trying to kill. In their red haze, we in the West had somehow contrived to make al-Shabaab look like the good guys. What could’ve been a boring film where a bunch of people watch screens all day was considerably elevated by incendiary writing, exciting action and enough moral conundrums to keep you awake for nights afterwards. For my money, the best film of 2016 so far. AM

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