Monday, August 08, 2016

Sky High

Eye in the Sky was a movie I wanted to catch earlier this year, but it breezed in and out of movie theaters before I had the chance. Now that I have seen it, I'm sorry to have missed it before.

The film is a British political thriller that covers (in essentially real time) the effort to authorize a drone strike on a terrorist target. The action ping-pongs from the embedded agent trying to gather information in the field, the war hawk colonel bending the rules in favor of the attack, the parliamentary committee eager to pass the decision up the chain, and the American drone pilot wrestling with the ethics of the murky situation.

Eye in the Sky works on a number of levels. It's a palpably tense thriller. The focus on a single drone strike gives the story intense focus despite the four separate settings. Indeed, the separated locations actually increases the tension, as no one person can simply force their will physically on the others. Modern technology is used to put a new spin on time-honored thriller traditions: the sense of a ticking clock, the curse of incomplete information, and the onset of complications.

On a deeper level, the film is a powerful political parable. You watch and hope that in real life, a military strike decision is carried out with this level of methodical consideration -- the second guessing, the moral introspection, the analysis of risks and rewards. And these feelings are put quite at odds (and quite effectively) against the audience's normal demands of an action movie: Kill them! Blow stuff up! Do it! The movie really does make you ask the question: what would you do in this situation -- or, at the very least, who do you think was right? And I didn't have an easy answer after the credits rolled.

Pushing the movie to these effective heights is the outstanding casting of the four major roles. None of them share a scene together except by phone; the actors never even met one another during the making of the film. But each contributes perfectly to the whole as in a tight one-act stage play. Helen Mirren is cast wonderfully against type as the war hawk colonel; the story is turned quite on its ear by having a woman (and one this regal and forceful) as the most bloodthirsty character. Barkhad Abdi is the agent on site, a role that makes perfect use of his ability to convey desperation behind a mask of strength (as in his debut role in Captain Phillips). Aaron Paul plays the drone pilot; no one who has seen Breaking Bad will be surprised at how effective he is playing a young man tortured at the prospect of compromising his morals.

As the general in the room with the politicians, the movie enlists Alan Rickman -- in his final on-camera role before his death. He gives a masterful performance, the likes of which we rarely see (and now, sadly, will see less). He buries withering sarcasm in obsequious respect. He drives the talking heads back on course. And he does it all without once raising his voice, where other actors would shout and rave in vain pursuit of Oscar. Rickman also gets the one real "monologue" in the film, the speech that summarizes the movie's message (to the degree it isn't left intentionally open to interpretation). Needless to say, he knocks that scene out of the park.

When I'm assembling my top 10 list at the end of 2016, I'm certain Eye in the Sky will be on it. I give it an A-, and a strong recommendation.

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