In Andrew Niccol’s Good Kill Ethan Hawke plays a drone pilot who is locked away in a kitted-out portacabin in an American air base, somewhere in the Nevada desert. Inside this metal box he wrestles with the moral complexities of the precise military strikes he performs under orders, which are carried out thousands of miles away in Afghanistan or unidentified countries in the Middle East; understandably the character feels detached from the field of conflict, and the film spends plenty of time exploring his mental state, while at times for the viewer the footage seems akin to watching someone play a video game, albeit with supposedly real consequences. Niccol and Hawke successfully get into the mindset of the main character, and address some of the widely-held concerns about this kind of modern warfare, but we do only see events play out from an American perspective.
Similar ground is covered by Eye In The Sky, the new release by South African filmmaker Gavin Hood, though the scope of his film is much wider than Niccol’s. We do get an equivalent of Hawke’s Major Tom Egan – here played by Aaron Paul – but he’s just one part of an international anti-terrorism operation targeting Al Shabaab extremists in a house in Nairobi, Kenya. The identities of these terrorists are swiftly confirmed via satellite and drone imagery – plus some rather niftily-disguised James Bond-style cameras in close proximity – and footage later reveals that they are in the final stages of preparation for a suicide bombing. The mission to capture or kill them is being led by Helen Mirren’s British Army colonel from a bunker in Surrey, England, while the action sleekly switches between her, Paul’s pilot, Alan Rickman’s general – who is dealing with the British government – and those who are close to the house in question; namely a young girl (Aisha Takow) who sells bread in a busy nearby market, as well as Barkhad Abdi’s covert field agent, who has the riskiest job of all but is treated as expendable by those in charge. Thus an intriguing political, moral and legal dilemma subsequently plays out: do they blow up the house and risk collateral damage to those who are unfortunate enough to be nearby, or do they wait for a later opportunity that will not endanger innocent civilians and may allow them to take the targets alive?
The characters who are serving in the British military – perhaps more practiced with regard to making such decisions – want to strike as soon as possible; their argument is that it’s better to risk a couple of innocent deaths than have a bomber blow himself up in a crowded shopping mall, potentially killing many more. However the decision needs to be approved by the government, and that’s where lots of the film’s narrative tension lies: political and legal questions are asked but there’s very little precedent to help in terms of providing an answer, and the responsibility for giving the all-clear is repeatedly shirked by nervous politicians who are ultimately driven by the need to protect their own backs and those of their colleagues; at one point the decision even seems to rest on a politician’s desire to avoid having to discuss the matter on TV at a later date. Time ticks on as phone calls are made, and the film opens out further as bucks are passed to senior figures in the White House and Iain Glen’s Foreign Secretary, who is unflatteringly given a dose of food poisoning by writer Guy Hibbert. Throughout this mix of politicians, special agents, and military figures communicate via video message, telephone and email, and plenty of time is given over to their numerous conversations, which are generally tense and tend to end in further frustration for all involved.
The subject matter is current, of course, in terms of the setting and the practices of the terrorist group depicted, as well as the high-tech international collaboration, which must be flexible when global interests and priorities are not aligned. It’s shot in a perfunctory fashion, though Hood regularly reverts to the overhead images coming from the drone’s camera. He uses these in fascinating ways, at one point allowing the viewer and watching military and government parties to see the proximity of armed guards to Abdi’s agent as he is chased through alleys and yards, and later setting out the level of risk attached to the little girl’s position depending on where the missiles strike. The issues we are invited to ponder are the same as those the characters grapple with, though of course as we move from room to room and conversaton to conversation we are party to information that some characters do not have at their disposal. The screenplay offers no easy answers to the problems it creates or identifies during the first act, which is exactly as it should be. In fact the script is deliberately simple and deliberately tight, successfully heading off any ‘why don’t they do such-and-such?’ questions that may arise within the audience. It’s let down somewhat by contrivance and cliched characters – a brave agent, an icy colonel, cowardly bureaucrats, etc. – but improved by subtle points and suggestions that are tucked away here and there: for all the deliberation about the safety of the girl and concern about the welfare of the field agent – the two primary African characters – it’s telling that none of the British or American soldiers or politicians here seem interested in learning about the fate of either at the end.
In terms of the acting it’s generally quite solid, though occasionally Paul fails to convince as his character struggles with the potential consequences of the situation. Mirren is good as the assertive soldier in charge and Abdi shows fleeting glimpses of the standard he reached in Captain Phillips. I guess in the future the film will be notable for being the last one to feature Alan Rickman before he passed away, and there are times when we can enjoy the exasperation that featured so heavily in his acting career (I’m struggling to think of an actor who was better at displaying their character’s eye-rolling annoyance with those around them). It’s not Rickman’s best film, or his best performance, by any stretch, but he’s good in this and Eye In The Sky is a fitting end to a fine body of work. Hood – the director of the Oscar-winning 2005 film Tsotsi – has made a series of interesting career turns, of which this is the latest, and on this evidence I feel like I probably should have paid more attention during the past decade.
Directed by: Gavin Hood.
Written by: Guy Hibbert.
Starring: Helen Mirren, Aaron Paul, Alan Rickman, Barkhad Abdi, Aisha Takow, Phoebe Fox, Jeremy Northam, Iain Glen.
Cinematography: Haris Zambarloukos.
Editing: Megan Gill.
Music: Paul Hepker, Mark Kilian.
Running Time: 102 minutes.