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Eye in the Sky - review

Apr 15, 2016 Film & TV

Eye in the Sky is an ethical thriller about drone assassination. By this I mean that it’s a thriller about a topical and smartly constructed ethical conundrum — how much harm can you inflict today to stave off greater harm that may otherwise occur tomorrow? — but also that it holds itself to high moral standards.

No one (with the partial and highly forgivable exception of a handful of career politicians) is held up to empty ridicule. Every point of view in a large roster of conflicting viewpoints is allowed its own logic; defence hawks and civil rights doves will emerge from screenings with an equal sense that their case was put, and put well. They will also emerge entertained, disturbed and spoiling for an argument. This is edge-of-your-seat viewing that doubles as an excellent dinner-party conversation-starter.

This is edge-of-your-seat viewing that doubles as an excellent dinner-party conversation-starter.

Helen Mirren, at her most steely and formidable, plays a colonel in the British military. She’s running a covert-ops mission to locate and capture a British citizen and known terrorist on Kenyan soil. Meanwhile, her immediate superior, played with understated bite by the late, great Alan Rickman in his last major performance, is walking a conference room full of political overseers through the mission, complete with real-time video. (The film’s array of micro-surveillance drones, one of them an artificial flying beetle operated from an iPhone, is well within the realm of the plausible, and entirely chilling; implicit throughout the story is the message that if a major power today wants to follow your every movement, anywhere in the world, it can.)

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Complications ensue. Lives are on the line. “We need to put a Hellfire through that roof right now,” announces Mirren fiercely. American drone operators are standing by. The only thing is, a missile strike would probably kill a young girl from the house next door. But Mirren’s targets appear to be on the verge of carrying out a suicide bombing.

“We need a decision, minister,” says Rickman to the horrified politician at his elbow, whose career has clearly been built on avoiding hard calls at all costs.

Director Gavin Hood’s career has been built, somehow, on a track record of near-misses and appalling flops. After X-Men Origins: Wolverine and Ender’s Game, I was not expecting anything this gripping or sure-handed from him. Granted, the film’s real strengths come from Guy Hibbert’s screenplay — so deftly balanced between opposing viewpoints, and so relentless in its escalating tension — and from the excellent performances of the large cast. But bad direction can waste greater assets than these. Full credit to Hood: he’s made a must-see film.

In NZ cinemas nationwide from 14th April.


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