Attack of the Drones.
Every now and again, a film will come along that lays me flat on my ass with just how damn good it is. A movie can be elevated through solid acting, smart editing, stellar writing from a simple drama to an informative and intriguing moral debate about a particular subject. Today’s wonderful and highly relevant conversation starter: drone warfare. You know fun things…
We have Col. Katherine Powell (Helen Mirren) spearheading an operation to capture a British expatriate and her husband, both high level militants within the terrorist organization, Al-Shabaab (real life militant group), and #4 and #5 on the British top 10 most wanted list. Supervising her is Lieutenant General Frank Benson (Alan Rickman’s final role, fuck you I’m not counting that other one); you have Aaron Paul playing a pilot that operates the drone tracking the targets; and Barkhad Abdi (the lead pirate from Captain Phillips) as the spy shadowing the targets on the ground in Kenya. While everyone is initially relieved that they’ve found their objective through the miracles of modern drone tech, but they’re also horrified to discover the expatriate is in the middle of arming two kids with suicide vests. While Mirren’s character believes this changes everything from a capture mission to an assassination, every one else involved can’t help but ignore a little girl selling bread right next door to the intended targets. Dropping a bomb at the moment would likely kill her, and thus you have your drama.
You essentially have a Trolley Problem (a real one as opposed to a fucking moronic one involving Harambe), do you try saving one little girl or do you save countless people that could die in a suicide bombing? The conundrum is handled very deftly by the film as it presents multiple points of view of the situation, with each person offering vastly different outlooks on the problem based on their own personal experience or what do they see with their own eyes. Aaron Paul’s character and his partner both noticed the little girl playing near their mission area, and gave a silent smile when they saw how much fun she was having. And it’s that quiet breather from all the spy shit, that gave you a look into their own humanity, and it makes their decision towards the end of the film that much more potent.
Meanwhile, Barkhad Abdi is a Kenyan spy armed with some sci-fi surveillance technology in the form of a remote controlled insect that doubles as a camera. To be honest, that special effect wasn’t that great, but the premise may not be too far from reality at this point. He has to put himself in the crosshairs of the terrorist organization and has to be careful his presence doesn’t arouse any suspicion. Further he takes the most direct attempts to save the little girl in such a tense and dramatic fashion that you’re left holding your breath for both of their lives.
It’s a testament to the solid acting on display here. You’ve got no slouches in the entire cast, even though all of them are conversing with each other via telephone or texting. It’s the antithesis to bullshit like Jason Bourne, which uses phone sequences to allow big name actors to give half assed performances. Instead, Eye in the Sky opts to use the method of communication as a true means to gather as many different perspectives as possible.
The two standouts from the cast are Mirren and Rickman. Mirren has always been (and always will be) a damn fine actress in whatever she’s in, even if it’s bullshit like The Iron Lady. Here she’s playing an obsessed colonel doing her best to bring an expatriate to justice for her role in executing one of Mirren’s undercover agents, but the presence of the suicide vests radically alters her mission into “kill with extreme prejudice.” It’s a turn that makes sense given the script and Mirren’s disposition established in the film’s opening moments. So you buy here pulling up with every excuse out of her ass, right down to instructing her visibly concerned subordinates to provide slightly inaccurate data in order for the colonel to get way.
Rickman, meanwhile, goes out on a high note. He’s instrumental in several important scenes of the film, but particularly in one towards the end where he’s chastised by a UK cabinet member expressing her disgust for the plan for assassination. Rickman’s character counters her by calmly recounting several horrors he has witnessed over the years and a wish he had to prevent the calamities he witnessed if he could…no matter the cost. It’s a brutal scene that a lessee actor would have botched, but Rickman demonstrated why he was one of the best. The rest of the cast is utilized effectively, such as Paul and Abdi, both bit supporting actors given plenty to do in a film that takes advantage of their respective talents.
To my surprise, Gavin Hood of all fucking people directed this. His name may not be instantly recognizable for you, but he’s the guy who did the miserable X-Men: Origins Wolverine and the forgettable Ender’s Game. His only other quality film was something called Tsotsi, which he made in 2005. Not really the kind of director I’d expect to make one of my favorite films of the year, but here we are. For his part, Hood knows how to make each scene flow to the next as well as how to create proper tension for a political thriller that usually resorts to slow burn methods. For this film, he manages to make the simple act of a little girl selling bread as a life or death situation, by focusing on multiple perspectives each watching the screen of the drones with horror and helplessness.
And more than any other film I’ve seen, it handles the subject of drone warfare in a mature fashion to force you to debate with yourself on the ethics of the practice. You can initially say to yourself that this is a inhumane, cold, and frightening method of warfare; but when confronted with a situation that only you could stop, you start doing what the characters in the film do and start calculating the chances innocent people will die in your attempt to save others. You catch yourself realizing how many bombing attempts could have been prevented if American or British intelligence just stumbled upon a plan to execute people, but you also wonder how the use of the drones will affect the West’s appearance to countries like Kenya and the Middle East, where these attacks are common every single week. You wonder at how this drone technology can make powerful people judge, jury and executioner; making calls they felt were right…and may even alter the facts in order to satisfy whatever procedural protocol you put in place. I love it when a film forces me to confront my own morality as well as that of others, and for that alone I want people to see this shit.
This film is pure cinematic bliss for me, making me want to debate ethics with friends (and enemies) on how drone warfare affects our world. This film is deserving of all the top marks and it now sits in my Top 5 best films of 2016 so far. This will likely wind up somewhere in my top ten of this year, so without further ado, I give Eye in the Sky the highest possible…