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The changing face of war Eye in the Sky'

April 6, 2016
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Film offers look at the new realities of modern warfare

War movies have always been a significant part of any cinematic era. The entire history of motion pictures is dotted with films about warfare. The kinetic nature of war has always allowed it to be well-expressed on film.

But as technology has evolved, so too has warfare. And while boots-on-the-ground combat isn't going anywhere, there are new, farther-removed methods of engaging. Instead of being face-to-face with the enemy, developments such as drones allow a soldier to wage war while safely at home, thousands of miles away.

So how does one translate this new kind of war to film?

Director Gavin Hood offers up a nigh-perfect blueprint to doing just that with the excellent thriller 'Eye in the Sky.' With a taut script by Guy Hibbert and stellar performances from an eclectic and talented ensemble, it's a tense look at the new face of war, one far enough removed from the action to allow for politics and bureaucracy to enter more directly into the decision-making process.

Colonel Katharine Powell (Helen Mirren, 'Trumbo') is running a joint military operation in pursuit of terrorists in Nairobi, Kenya. While she is in charge, there are numerous other agencies involved. At an Air Force base in Las Vegas, drone pilot Steve Watts (Aaron Paul, 'Triple 9') is serving as the operation's 'eye in the sky,' providing real-time intelligence regarding the suspected terrorists. Meanwhile, Sergeant Mushtuq Saddiq (Babou Ceesay, TV's 'A.D. The Bible Continues') is leading the military operation on the ground, with intelligence assistance from Jama Farah (Barkhad Abdi, 'The Brothers Grimsby').

And through it all, Powell's superior officer Lt. General Frank Benson (the late Alan Rickman) is in conference with a number of high-level British government officials in an effort to keep the mission moving forward.

However, when circumstances arise that change the very nature of the mission into something altogether different and more dangerous Colonel Powell and the rest are left to pick their way through a minefield where every decision they make may have enormous repercussions. As the situation escalates, the buck is passed continually up and down the chain of command, with no one wanting to accept responsibility for the hot potato that the mission has become.

It's left to the soldiers themselves to make the truly tough choices the ones which they can only pray to have been the right ones.

One of the most impressive feats that 'Eye in the Sky' pulls off is in the creation of dramatic tension. While the scenes that take place on the ground in Nairobi are understandably dynamic, the majority of the film consists of people observing those events from a considerable distance both physically and intellectually. Yet Hood manages to infuse these moments that are just people looking at screens with real stakes; there's a level of emotional investment achieved here.

Judgment calls are no longer in the heat of the moment, but rather calculated and re-calculated, with more and more people required to weigh in before decisions can be made. That wheel-spinning, far from detracting from the narrative, actually empowers it in some subtle ways. That sense of frustration permeates the film, offering up a world where no choice is an easy one in any sense of the word.

The ethical conundrum of this technologically-driven modern warfare is also addressed with surprising nuance. The film never comes down in judgment with regards to the morality of these kinds of weapons; it simply offers a look. It is stark and unsettling in many ways, but seemingly fair throughout. Essentially, war in the 21st century is far from black and white.

As you might imagine, performances play a huge part in rendering this film as compelling as it is. Despite the sharp delineations within the narrative the main players rarely (if ever) share the screen directly - the cast still very much feels like an ensemble. Mirren is at the film's core; if there's a star, she's it. She embodies dutifulness with her performance; she is a woman whose mission will always be the most important thing in her life. It's a bit of a departure for Mirren, but it's an unsurprisingly exceptional performance. Paul is also great as a relatively new drone pilot who is forced to deal with the more shadowy side of his job for the very first time; he's very good. Abdi is one of those actors who we can only hope is allowed to move beyond his heritage. He's still inexperienced, but there's something real there. And it was an unexpected surprise to see the late Alan Rickman on-screen his dour military man is precisely the sort of performance for which we remember him fondly.

'Eye in the Sky' might be the first great film that explores this aspect of war. It's filled with exceptional performances and informs without preaching; it turns something that could have been woefully static into a dynamic and thrilling story.

In short, it soars.

[5 out of 5]

Last modified on Sunday, 17 April 2016 12:42

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