‘Eye in the Sky’ lacks confidence in its vision

By Griffin Lyons

(Keith Bernstein/Bleeker Street Media)
(Keith Bernstein/Bleeker Street Media)

“Eye in the Sky,” the latest feature by director Gavin Hood, wants very strongly to say something. The title should give us a clue: The airborne oculus in question refers to drones, the remotely operated aerial vehicles whose usage has increased exponentially in the last two decades.

In that time, the wider public has become aware, and wary, of their potential: first for surveillance and then for warfare. The film’s main characters, too, are aligned with this concern – militaries, their governments, their enemies and the innocent people caught in the middle. So with that background, “Eye in the Sky” is all the more disappointing for a pervasive sense of indecisiveness that overshadows its strong performances and laudable cinematography.

“Eye in the Sky” opens with a simple scenario that rapidly becomes complicated. The U.K., the U.S. and Kenya are conducting a joint mission to track and capture several high-profile terrorists in Nairobi. Suddenly, the plans are thrown off track and the stakes are heightened when surveillance uncovers a plan that could kill dozens, or maybe hundreds. Conducting a strike on their location would risk innocent casualties, if not outright guarantee them.

In charge of the situation is Colonel Katherine Powell (Helen Mirren), answering to a group in the British government including Lieutenant General Frank Benson (Alan Rickman) and Attorney General George Matherson (Richard McCabe).

In the U.S., drone pilot Steve Watts (Aaron Paul) and airman Carrie Gershon (Phoebe Fox) are their aerial surveillance, and if it comes down to it, their means of killing the terrorists before they can mobilize. In Kenya, undercover agent Jama Farah (Barkhad Abdi) is the only means of keeping eyes on the inside of their compound.

As they ready to strike, another complication arises: young girl Alia Mo’Allim (Aisha Takow) is selling her mother’s bread at a stand set up on the street just outside the compound. The media nightmare of being directly responsible for the death of a child is evident here, and it’s also where “Eye in the Sky” starts to falter. The film deceives the audience in its depiction of people making hard choices.

There is a fine cast here. Even for the size of their parts, Paul and Fox are understated and compelling. It’s no wonder their hard choices are the most convincing. In her screen debut, Takow is a magnetic child actor whose charm extends beyond her innocence. When she smiles, one feels moved to smile with her.

Mirren is in fine form here, playing a figure of authority staring down endless compromise and the late Alan Rickman is a delight as the droll but assertive Benson.

When Rickman snaps at foreign affairs minister Brian Woodale (Jeremy Northam) that the military makes the decisions, and the government just has to sign off on them, Northam snaps right back and calls to mind a younger Timothy Dalton: “If only it were that easy.”

Beautiful visuals from cinematographer Haris Zambarloukos and well-paced scenes provide another boost to this film, but neither are enough to save it from the vacillation at its core.

Let us be clear on something: “Eye in the Sky” is not a bad movie. It is not riven with unwatchable wooden acting; it does not have stupefying incongruous design choices and the characters make the decisions that they would logically make at each stage of the story.

That story, however, is what holds back “Eye in the Sky” from being a distinctly good film. Its attempt at depicting an ethical gray area is hamstrung by the fact that there still needs to be an outcome, a resolution in the specific instance of ethics depicted.

“Eye in the Sky” is essentially a film about the adage, “You can’t have your cake and eat it, too.” Unwilling to commit to a concrete argument or to depict hard choices without first rendering them irrelevant with lots of rhetorical couching, “Eye in the Sky” wants to tell a story where nobody comes out a winner, and it would seem that includes the film itself.

Griffin Lyons can be reached at [email protected].