Eye in the Sky
(SPOILERS) The movies can’t get enough of drones, whether its critiquing them in indie features no one will see, utilising them as the stock-in-trade explosive plot device of the average blockbuster, or simply making the pictures themselves with them. Last year we were graced with the indulgent angst fest of a boozy Ethan Hawke going off the deep end in Good Kill; it was solid on the incongruity of delivering destruction from a storage crate in Vegas, much less so on the personal demons of its main character. The plus side of largely limiting itself to a character piece was that writer-director Andrew Niccol honed in on the disconnect between worlds. Eye in the Sky is much more traditional in that regard, addressing its subject matter through a high-stakes mission in progress. As such, it stands as a more effective as a piece of storytelling, even if that story assumes the sanctity and rectitude of the War on Terror, and picks relatively easy targets from which to fashion its moral quandaries.
Which, essentially, revolve around the utilitarian doctrine espoused by the military, based on probabilities of collateral damage (the minimum number of innocent casualties resulting from a strike versus the maximum loss of life perpetrated by a suicide bomber). There’s never any question here of the pervasive threat of the Islamic menace lurking at every street corner and in every dwelling place, plotting to sacrifice their next willing participant in the eternal fight against Western values. But then, Gavin Hood, once the director of Tsotsi and the quite-good-up-to-a-point Rendition, has already put on his self-righteous hat about Eye in the Sky’s virtues vis-à-vis London Has Fallen (“How can you put out such a piece of racist garbage and think it isn’t strategically detrimental to the fight against extremism?”), suggesting he doesn’t see how his own feature seamlessly slots into the prevailing narrative.
He even suggested Gerard Butler should be ashamed of making London Has Fallen, although The Guardian interviewer failed to ask whether X-Men Origins: Wolverine elicited that very response from Hood himself. Hood said “I think they have made a film they think is cool. And that’s repugnant”. You couldn’t accuse Eye in the Sky of thinking it’s cool, but it’s probably guilty of equally crass, manipulative tactics in its own way (I say probably, because I’ve only seen Olympus Has Fallen thus far, and while I’m obviously very much looking forward to London, it will just have to wait).
Eye is a picture that loads its deck at every turn in order to run through its treadmill of moral musings. I wouldn’t say the result reveals Hood as a glib philosopher per se, so much as one who clearly doesn’t perceive how his attempts to inject substance and debate into mainstream movies have been left wanting; his last film was the adaptation of Orson Scott Card’s Ender’s Game, which similarly revolved around utilitarian debates on the greater good legitimising the suffering of the few, or the other, and also fell short of its aspirations.
Guy Hibbert’s Eye screenplay is actually most rewarding when it probes the legalese and bureaucratic minefield of a proposed action, simply because Hood can find no way to massage the accompanying moral baggage without indulging in emotive overkill. Alan Rickman’s lieutenant general even calls the picture out accordingly at one point, querying whether the assembled politicians would be vacillating over whether to approve the strike on residence housing two wanted terrorist suspects (and a suicide bomber loaded up and ready to blow) if someone other than an adorable little girl selling bread was smack bang in the fall-out zone.
But, of course, there has to be an adorable little girl selling bread (who isn’t really that adorable, she’s an ardent capitalist who takes the opportunity to sell the loaves twice; perhaps this is why she has to die).
And, of course, there have to be bluntly manifested motivators to the plot. Helen Mirren’s Colonel wants to get her kill by any means necessary, even if that means manufacturing damage estimates to ensure the go ahead. The weasely politicians want to pass the buck to a man (which is moderately amusing, and both Jeremy Northam and Iain Glen – the latter amid a terrible attack of toilet troubles while making a presentation at an arms fair, of which I couldn’t decide if this was Hood attempting to make a point about the self-perpetuating nature of conflict, but I suspect not – acquit their characters in an appropriately gutless manner).
But Monica Dolan’s liberal squealer seems written to be loathed for taking the moral high ground, particularly so when Rickman reprimands her for suggesting a soldier might observe a casual attitude to life-and-death decision making (“Never tell a soldier that he does not know the cost of war”). Hood’s desperately keen to be fair to the idea of a justification for such remote-controlled death dealing, provided all appropriate precautions are taken, and give him his due for not wanting to be drawn into absolutes, but the conversation becomes far less provocative once you’ve given ground at the outset.
The level of contrivance does much to undermine the earnestness with which Hood treats his telling. After a certain point, the continued delays to the go-ahead become merely farcical. Which may be the point when it comes to Whitehall bureaucracy, but it feels more like the obvious artifice of a plot doing its darnedest to work its audience. Every detail, from Barkhad Abdi (Captain Phillips) being required to squeeze his unlikely drone tech (that humming bird wouldn’t fool Inspector Clouseau) into ever tighter spaces while being prevailed upon by an annoying kid and trigger-happy Kenyan troops, to Aaron Paul (in a decent big screen showing, there may be hope for him yet beyond Breaking Bad) as a pilot baulking at killing a little cutie, is shameless button-pushing that can only serve to turn the debate into a glossy feigning of seriousness.
Formidable as Mirren and Rickman (in his last screen appearance, although he has some upcoming voice work; he will be missed) are, and they’re naturally commanding, neither really convinces as a military type. Perhaps that’s Hood wanting to disarm us of our expectations, in hand with emphasising the artifice and remoteness of their locations, what with Rickman bookended by buying a doll for his granddaughter and Mirren proving the most ruthless customer in the movie, but it nevertheless feels a little like dress-up. Hood’s a decent filmmaker, of course. No auteur, but he has a good, clear facility with pace, editing, geography and structure, so he ensures that, even as you remain dubious of the picture’s capacity for depth, you’re drawn in.
Eye in the Sky will doubtless become yet another War on Terror movie no one sees. American Sniper aside, naturally. Was that one acceptable because it eschewed liberal handwringing? After all, none of them have really interrogated the struggle being struggled against, merely the methods involved. As a result, even the better ones are somewhat toothless, supporting the established doctrine by default. This one does itself no favours by portraying those waging the good fight as painfully well-meaning, fearful of voters, or at least couching themselves in the language of the righteous cause. The only actually bad people get blown up. Along with the adorable little girl.
Agree? Disagree? Mildly or vehemently? Let me know in the comments below.