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Eye In The Sky (2016) Review

Having explored the politics and morality of warfare in 2013’s “Ender’s Game”, director Gavin Hood returns to the subject with a tense and much more topical take. This time, however, we’re not granted the vicarious safety of far-future sci-fi because this remotely controlled war is very present-day and very, very real.

A joint mission between British, Kenyan and US forces to capture a pair of wanted terrorists abruptly changes when an opportunity presents itself to not only prevent an impending terrorist attack but also take out several high priority targets. Commander Powell (Helen Mirren) presses for the authority to strike with deadly force however she must wrestle with the moral implications of the action and convince the chain of command that deadly force is necessary before the window of opportunity closes.

“Eye In The Sky” does several clever things and it does them so well and so subtly you’re not really aware of them during that first, tension-filled viewing. Firstly, it unfolds in almost real time so the increasing risk of failure is palpable as the political and military authorities prevaricate and pontificate on the legal, ethical and strategic ramifications of the mission. There are, of course, subtle cinematic sleights of hand to keep things dramatically on track but generally we’re there with everyone through the course of the mission. The other thing it does is allow us to see the domestic mundanity that surrounds these critical geopolitical situations. There is, of course, the ever-present reality of innocent collateral damage at the proposed site of the strike which is heavily emphasised throughout the film but, more unusually, we also get glimpses into the lives of the major decision makers and action takers of the drama. Scenes which border on whimsy, showing Lieutenant General Frank Benson (Alan Rickman) agonising over which toy doll to choose for his granddaughter or a hubristic Foreign Secretary being inconvenienced by a bout of food poisoning may seem superfluous to the narrative but are every bit as vital and relevant as an innocent young girl playing with her hoop in a dusty Kenyan backyard next to the terrorist compound. It’s the even-handedness in portraying the humanity and fallibility on both sides of the Reaper Drone’s camera that gives “Eye In The Sky” its potency.

The film is packed with terrific performances. Mirren captivates as the determined, hard-nosed commander with her eyes firmly on the military objective while the late Alan Rickman charms and impresses as the military liaison to the Government, resolute, diplomatic but not to be trifled with as he calmly rebuts the more emotive and sentimental of the government ministers present. Barkhad Abdi (“Captain Phillips”) also impresses as a Kenyan field agent tasked with infiltrating the terrorist held territory to gather vital intelligence for the strike.

“Eye In The Sky” is a film that offers no easy answers but presents the situation of the modern War On Terror as it is. Whichever route you come to the hard choices on offer here, this is a film that will make you think and at least cause your moral certainties to feel a little less certain. Even Spock himself would be hesitant to glibly invoke ‘the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few, or the one’ after watching this. A window to the interconnected global military reach and a profound moral dilemma to ponder on, “Eye In The Sky” is a powerful and timely reminder of the cost of warfare and the price of ‘freedom’.

8/10 

Captain Phillips (2013) Review

When I first saw a trailer for “Captain Phillips”, I wasn’t bowled over. I only had a passing familiarity with the real events the film was based on, and the lacklustre title combined with an underwhelming trailer gave me the impression of a Discovery Channel special with talking heads and stagey reconstructions, stretching out thirty minutes of actual content into two hours of repeatedly recapped programming.

But a friend persisted in championing it and eventually there came a choice between finally capitulating and seeing “Captain Phillips” or going to see “Delivery Man”. Having just endured “The Internship”, it was a no-brainer and I now find myself also indebted to Vince Vaughan’s lack of range because without the prospect of having to sit through another film where he plays the exact same character, I would never have gone to see Paul Greengrass’ absorbing thriller.

Far from being a documentary style, dry retelling of the experiences of the attempted hijacking of the Maersk Alabama, Director Paul Greengrass has crafted an enthralling, tense high seas adventure which works as a straight-up thriller as well as a thought-provoking true-life story. Despite the very modern trappings of the story, there is still an element of swashbuckle here, with Captain Phillips using his skill and experience to first see off the pirates then thwart their attempted takeover of the ship. Based on real events, this is not really a biopic: we learn very little about the captain and crew of the Maersk Alabama or the pirates themselves beyond seeing how they cope with the situations which arise. Instead, the story is king: we are witness to the events and the people involved in them and from the initial skirmishes to the boarding of the ship and through to the kidnap and escape in the lifeboat, the film powers along with confidence, fuelled by stellar performances and never once sagging despite its lengthy two and a quarter-hour running time.

Oscar-nominated Barkhad Adbi is superb as the complex, conflicted pirate leader Abduwali Muse, infusing his performance with an intensity and quiet desperation while Faysal Ahmed’s Najee provides a combustible, vicious element to the pirate crew, threateneing to spiral out of control at any minute. However, this is Tom Hanks’ film and he is at the absolute top of his game here. His performance as Phillips, especially in the post-rescue breakdown scene, is so full of raw, genuine emotional honesty that it’s baffling  he was overlooked for the Best Actor Oscar this year while Christian Bale’s showy, insincere (and ultimately costume-driven) performance in “American Hustle” got the nod. The work Hanks does in the last ten minutes of “Captain Phillips” is the best performance this reviewer has seen all year.

Ignoring the murmurs that the story portrays Captain Phillips more favourably than real life events and judging it on its merits as a film, this as a superb seafaring thriller, based on actual events and populated by expert actors giving their very finest performances.

9/10