When director Gavin Hood makes movies about social and political issues, the result tends to be didactic, manipulative and shallow. The biggest compliment I can give “Eye in the Sky,” his latest offering, is that while it suffers from the same problems, it is still the most effective of Hood’s movies to date. We are aware of the limitations of “Eye in the Sky” as we watch it, frequently recoiling from its emotional ploys, and what the film has to say on an ideological level is unclear, to say the least. The result, however, is well-made enough that we can overlook its flaws much of the time.
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Hood, a native of South Africa, won an undeserved Best Foreign Film Oscar in 2005 for “Tsotsi.” This time he has tried to raise a variety of national, military and moral questions concerning the remote-control attacks that make up much of modern warfare. If his movie succeeds, it is in large part thanks to Guy Hibbert’s deftly written screenplay, which is especially good at injecting drama into the many discussions between British government officials and representatives of the military about a planned operation in Nairobi.
A British woman who joined the Muslim group, Al-Shabaab, has been located inside a house there, and forces located nearby intend to go in and capture her. But things get complicated when it turns out that the woman is not alone, and that she and her associates are planning a terrorist attack. This information makes the capture plan irrelevant; now the intention is to blow up the house using a drone, which is operated by an American pilot in Las Vegas. The main problem is how to do all this without hurting civilians, represented here by a sweet little girl selling bread next door.
This aspect of the plot is where the emotional manipulation occurs: the dilemma is presented without any sophistication, and it will probably seem banal to an Israeli audience, long accustomed to the argument over whether civilian casualties might be justified during a military action. To emphasize the military’s moral dilemma, the little girl and her loving family are presented in such a saccharine way that the manipulation becomes blatant, detracting from the complexity of the issues that “Eye in the Sky” is trying to raise. No less tacky is the portrayal of the pilot, who – despite Aaron Paul’s capable performance – is the American version of the stereotypical bleeding-heart soldier known to us from Israeli movies.
These are serious flaws in “Eye in the Sky,” and they make it impossible to take the film seriously. Still, it does have its virtues, especially the way it shows the procedures required before the operation can be carried out. The conversations we witness between the military commanders (Alan Rickman in his last screen role, good as always; and Helen Mirren, all resolve – really, nothing but resolve) are written and directed better than the action segments. The debates even have an implicit satirical dimension, evident in the oh-so-British restraint of all involved – a quality that helps balance out the sticky sentimentality of the movie’s other parts. There is also a satirical tinge to the dialogue, which is full of British understatement, and in the best scenes the dilemma of the characters comes across most clearly in the way they contradict themselves within a single sentence (everyone, that is, except for Mirren’s character).
In “Eye in the Sky,” Hood – who also appears in a small part – tries to show us a complex national, moral and military reality, but this attempt is foiled by the movie’s overall message, which ultimately remains vague (the same was true of his 2007 film “Rendition,” which likewise explored the limits of military and national action when the end is seen as justifying the means) and is conservative and simplistic in its pro-West, anti-Muslim way. The movie’s handling of long-distance killing is also a missed opportunity; had it more fully and bravely explored the possibilities suggested by its name, “Eye in the Sky” could have been a sharper picture, and it might have given a clearer view of the horror in this detached, cold form of modern warfare.
The limitations of “Eye in the Sky” are unfortunate, because if it had been a better, deeper picture, it might have been relevant to other conflict zones as well, including our own. As it is, however, the result can be watched with some interest – but it leaves behind no lasting impression.