Eye in the Sky is unlike most war films. Sure, there are explosions, deaths, and soldiers who face a moral reckoning over what they do for their country. But director Gavin Hood and screenwriter Guy Hibbert have the laser-like precision of their subject: they focus on one operation, over the course of about twelve hours, and all the decisions involved. If most war films are about action, then this one is about procedure. The characters are all professionals, and the way they think interests Hibbert more than what they do. This is modern warfare at its most impersonal, which is why it stumbles with maudlin attempts to engage our emotions.
Colonel Katherine Powell (Helen Mirren) leads a British operation to capture terrorists in Kenya. She believes one terrorist in particular, a British citizen, is holed up in a crowded part of the capitol. With the help of an American drone pilot (Aaron Paul), her plan is to capture the terrorist once she can positively ID her. Lt. General Frank Benson (Alan Rickman) oversees the operation, along with civilian bureaucrats, to ensure it is legal. There are two major complications: they observe that the terrorists are getting ready for a suicide bomb attack, and if they stop it with a drone attack, there will be civilian casualties. Everyone tries to decide how best to proceed, even if it means going all the way up to the American Secretary of State.
Hood takes his time to lay out all the major players, and how they relate to each other. At first, it seems like he is giving too much information, yet Eye in the Sky has so many moving parts that the exposition is necessary. And since Hood films them at the start their day, whether it involves walking the dog or going shopping, there is a sneakier purpose about the everyday banality of the modern military. While the technology is impressive – Captain Phillips’ Barkhad Abdi plays a Kenyan spy who uses a flying camera that’s literally the size of a bug – the main point is that there is detachment from the action at hand. Hood’s camera is free to explore Kenya on a ground level, of course, so he spends time with a poor family who make ends meet by selling bread and fixing bikes. They represent the human cost of professionals whose jobs require a level of inhumanity.
The tension of Eye in the Sky involves bureaucracy. That does not sound like much, yet Hood and Hibbert approach it with inexorable logic. Sometimes bureaucratic hurdles create a sense of suspense: the English civilians have minutes to decide whether they should let a suicide bomber wander the streets, and they must watch from monitors as their plans go awry. There are also funny, in a Dr. Strangelove sort of way. As the English government pushes the decision-making to the next highest level, there is frustration over who actually wants results. One character gives the go-ahead while he’s on the toilet. By mixing human comedy with checks and balances, Hood suggests that these decisions and hold-ups must happen every single day. Experts in the military have commented how Eye in the Sky truly shows what it’s like nowadays, and I believe them.
The workmanlike acting reflects the professionalism of the characters. There are not prone to theatrics, and instead speak with restrained forcefulness. Powell is the most gung-ho part of the operation: she’s been tracking the terrorist for years, and does not want bean-counters to stop her from hitting her target. As the drone pilot, Paul hits many of the same notes from his character in Breaking Bad by putting on a brave face to hide his inner turmoil. Still, Alan Rickman steals the show as the intermediary between the armed forces and politicians. Eye in the Sky is Rickman’s last film, and as Benson, he speaks with a mix of droll irony, disgust, and regret over what his job has become. His kiss-off line is terrific, and his delivery is a fitting end to a career of great character roles.
Gavin Hood became a major filmmaker with Tsotsi, which won him the Academy Award for Best Foreign Film. Like Tsotsi, there is a humanist streak to all his work. It is even there for Ender’s Game, which is about children who lead an army against an entire race of space bugs. The humanist streak is in Eye in the Sky, too, albeit to a fault. His focus on the mild-mannered Kenyan family – and their young daughter in particular – is manipulative. Whenever Hood wants the audience to feel something, he turns up the volume and lets cloying violin music do the storytelling for him. For a film that is about tough decisions and the ordinary people who make them, these moments betray their sense of morality. That is a minor quibble, however, and Eye in the Sky is still important and involving.