DIR: Gavin Hood • WRI: Guy Hibbert • PRO: Ged Doherty, Colin Firth, David Lancaster • DOP: Harris Zambarloukos • DES: Johnny Breedt • Cast: Helen Mirren, Alan Rickman, Aaron Paul, Barkhad Abdi, Jeremy Northam, Iain Glen
It is three months since his untimely passing at the age of 69, but the legacy of Alan Rickman’s extraordinary career continues to live on. His unique vocal talents will be heard in next month’s Alice Through the Looking Glass (he reprises his role as ‘Blue Caterpillar’ from Tim Burton’s smash-hit original), but for those interested in seeing his final live-action performance, Gavin Hood’s Eye in the Sky allows him to offer considerable gravitas amongst a strong ensemble cast.
Alongside the ever-reliable Helen Mirren (who Rickman shared the stage with in 1998’s Antony and Cleopatra), Rickman plays Lt General Frank Benson, a veteran of the British Army, who is supervising a planned drone strike in Kenya in the presence of several key members from the UK Government.
While Benson attempts to persuade the political officials about the importance of dealing with this potential threat (from a real-life extermist group known as Al-Shabaab), Mirren’s Colonel Katherine Powell,in a role initially earmarked as a male character, is commanding the operation from a base in Sussex.
In addition to her constant communication with Benson, Powell is also in contact with USAF pilots Steve Watts (Breaking Bad‘s Aaron Paul) and Carrie Gershon (Phoebe Fox), as well as a Kenyan undercover agent, played by previous Oscar-nominee Barkhad Abdi, who is controlling the video bug that provides visual confirmation of the extremists’ Nairobian safehouse.
Abdi’s Jama Farah discovers that the terrorists are preparing two suicide bombers for a suspected attack on a populated civilian area. As a result, Powell decides to change the mission objective from “capture” to “kill”, as the presence of explosives rules out the possibility of apprehending them.
Yet, the planned drone strike by Powell and Benson does raise two significant legal and ethical concerns amongst those at govermental level. Because two of their targets are UK and US citizens, Benson is finding it difficult to secure authorisation for this particular form of military action, and matters are also complicated by the presence of a local girl selling bread in front of the safehouse.
If the missile is launched while she is at her stall, there is a strong possibility that she will become a civilian casualty. This raises the biggest moral question of the film: is it worth risking the life of one civilian if there is the potential for up to 80 deaths if they decide not to take action?
In the light of the incidents that have taken place across the globe within the past 12 months, the subject matter of this film will undoubtedly hold great resonance. However, rather than focus on the ideology of the terrorists involved, Eye in the Sky provides an insight into how global terrorism is tackled in the modern age.
Since making his name as the director behind the Oscar-winning Tsotsi in 2005, Johannesburg native Hood has effectively made Hollywood his adopted home. X-Men Origins: Wolverine and Ender’s Game drew a mixed response from audiences and critics, while his English-language debut, 2007’s Rendition also received a subdued reception.
Yet, Eye in the Sky can be seen as something of a companion piece to Rendition, and while it is hard to compete with a cast list that included Jake Gyllenhaal, Reese Witherspoon and Meryl Streep, his latest film also features some heavyweight performers.
Mirren and Rickman bring real authority to the proceedings, while Jeremy Northam is effective as a conflicted cabinet minister. Game of Thrones star Iain Glen is also added to the mix as the UK’s Foreign Secretary, and after a string of roles where he has found himself sidelined, Paul fares better here. Fresh from minor part in the Sacha Baron Cohen misfire Grimsby, it is also good to see Abdi back on the territory that helped to make him a breakout star in Paul Greengrass’ Captain Phillips, even though his character arc is largely abandoned during the final act.
By moving back and forth between a number of locations, Hood creates real tension, and, like his previous film, Ender’s Game, it also has a finale that will remain in people’s minds for a number of days.
Mirren is a commanding presence throughout, but in taking on a part that might well have been phoned-in by other actors, Rickman proves to be one of the film’s biggest highlights. Playing a man that has witnessed first-hand the horrors of war and conflict, Rickman brings serious depth to General Benson, and his cutting monologue to Monica Dolan’s cautious Angela Northman in the closing moments helps to drive home one of the film’s key messages.