Seeking out the

5000 greatest films

in a century of cinema

Eye in the Sky

Directed by Gavin Hood
Produced by Colin Firth, David Lancaster, and Ged Doherty
Written by Guy Hibbert
With: Helen Mirren, Aaron Paul, Alan Rickman, Barkhad Abdi, Jeremy Northam, Iain Glen, Phoebe Fox, Richard McCabe, Gavin Hood, Babou Ceesay, and Michael O'Keefe
Cinematography: Haris Zambarloukos
Editing: Megan Gill
Music: Paul Hepker and Mark Kilian
Runtime: 102 min
Release Date: 01 April 2016
Aspect Ratio: 2.35 : 1
Color: Color

Up to now, most narrative features about contemporary warfare and espionage haven’t fully explored the implications and thematic weight of drones, micro-surveillance cameras, and the other covert and weaponized technology now available to superpowers.  Mostly we see these tools used to visually amp up high-energy action movies like the Borne and Mission: Impossible pictures, or to lampoon blockbusters of that stripe, as in the previous year’s forgettable Spy.  Rarely are these high-tech gadgets and scenarios properly utilized to enhance suspense or heighten dramatic stakes. In fact, they usually minimize the excitement.  The James Bond series from Goldeneye (1995) to Quantum of Solace (2008) all but neutered its iconic lone-wolf hero by attaching a digital tether to him so his superiors could keep tabs on his activities. When Hollywood does try to get serious about the implications of these controversial technologies, it comes up with facile dramas like Drones (2013) or Good Kill (2014).  The British political thriller Eye in the Sky succeeds far better at using the tension inherent in drone combat and modern day reconnaissance to create an exciting and relatively intelligent piece of entertainment. 

The near-real-time story stars Helen Mirren as Col. Katherine Powell, a British military intelligence officer leading a clandestine, multinational mission to capture a radicalized young Englishwoman in Nairobi, Kenya.  Alan Rickman portrays the general supervising her from a comfortable office in London.  Aaron Paul plays a US Air Force drone pilot stationed in Nevada with a camera and a couple of missiles locked onto the safehouse where Powell’s target is meeting with a group of terrorists. And Barkhad Abdi takes the role of an undercover agent on the ground in Kenya.  When Col. Powell discovers the full ramifications of what she and the others are watching, her objective switches from capture to kill.  This operational change instigates another signature aspect of contemporary warfare; the endless second-guessing of politicians, lawyers, and advisors fearful of the legal repercussions and propaganda defeats at stake in every major combat decision.  The taut suspense thriller deftly shifts in tone—at times almost becoming a dark comic farce—as life and death choices are passed up and down the chain of command with no one wanting to take responsibility for making a mistake.

The movie’s black-comedy quality, as well as its quad-split narrative structure, will bring to mind Stanley Kubrick’s Cold War masterpiece Dr. Strangelove (1964). But the film Eye in the Sky most recalls is the WWII drama Command Decision (1948), in which Clark Gable portrays an Air Force general who must navigate Military short-sightedness, press relations, and Pentagon politics as much as the tactics of his German enemies. As with that picture, Eye in the Sky explores the notion of accountability at all levels of a society at war and the effects of seemingly endless combat on the people who live it every day.  In order to goose the suspense, the film plays a little bit fast and loose with some of the specifics of drone engagement. There’s also no question it presents a simplified view of a complex moral issue with which all members of Western society should be more concerned. But Eye in the Sky is exactly the kind of solid wartime thriller that can get people thinking about consequential issues in a more nuanced way than what we get from TV news and social media headlines. 

Ultimately though, it’s the cast that makes this movie so worthwhile. Helen Mirren is riveting—perhaps if she had played “M” in all those Peirce Brosnan 007 pictures they might have achieved the sharp-edged gender commentary they tried so desperately for and failed so spectacularly at.  The supporting roles are exquisitely filled out. Jeremy Northam, Iain Glen, Richard McCabe, and Michael O'Keefe are maddeningly good as officials who either continuously pass the buck or casually sign off on things without a second thought.  Phoebe Fox brings humanity to the US Air Force navigator sitting with Aaron Paul’s drone pilot. And Paul aptly embodies the film’s most tangible moral dilemma as the man responsible for ultimately pulling or not pulling the trigger.  Eye in the Sky also marks the final screen appearance of Alan Rickman, the great English actor who died just prior to the movie’s release, and the second screen appearance of Barkhad Abdi, the Somali-American nominated for Best Supporting Actor for his début in Captain Phillips (2013). Both men give excellent performances of very different styles—Rickman using his sonorous voice to convey thought and emotion in an almost motionless role, and Abdi conveying cunning and compassion, bravery, and fear with his distinctive face in a nearly dialogue-free part. 

Since winning the Best Foreign Language Oscar in 2015 for his feature Tsotsi, South African director Gavin Hood has not exactly lived up to his promise—helming such disposable studio crap as X-Men Origins: Wolverine (2009) and Ender's Game (2013). Eye in the Sky proves he’s still a filmmaker worth watching.

Twitter Capsule:

A first-rate cast enriches Gavin Hood's sharp, tense political thriller, the first contemporary espionage entertainment to explore the thematic weight of covert weaponized technology rather than just play with it.