The second hardest thing to believe in Eye in the Sky is that there are miniaturised drones that look like bugs and humming birds which can be sent in to flit around terrorist safe houses like it ain’t even a thing. The hardest thing to believe is that is that anyone’s going to put an armed drone over the third world and take this damned long to pull the trigger.
I think that Eye in the Sky is supposed to be a thought provoking movie; it’s got a prestige cast, a downbeat ending, and a big issue in the middle of it. And it’s a well-acted movie; how could it not be? That’s Helen Mirren and Alan Rickman there, and a perfectly cast Aaron Paul, a man born to play decent people who haven’t thought their career choices through ahead of time and then choke when they realise that a steady paycheck has a hidden price.
It’s the set up which bothered me; the Reaper drone is just up there to keep an eye on things, to the point where the prep team shaved the armament to two missiles just to maximise the time over target. The real work is supposed to be done by the men on the ground, primed to dash in and snatch the suspects. This, we keep being told, is not an assassination mission. Just surveillance. Until it’s not. Suddenly the targets have moved from where they were supposed to be, and they’re prepping a suicide bombing, and the only way to avoid a massacre is to drop a missile on their heads.
The big moral dilemma which they’re trying to build the movie around is whether it’s OK to let off a bomb in a crowded slum and maybe kill a bunch of people including an adorable moppet, if that means you might prevent a bomb going off somewhere else with a potentially higher body count. There was a moment where one of the politicians talks about a bomb going off in a mall, and I thought to myself; “Yeah, that’s the dilemma. It’s a body count either way, but god forbid that it might kill consumers."
Watching people weasel about this was compelling only because of the sheer horsepower and subtlety of the leads. Rickman, in his last role, is a study in detachment. His general has made enough life and death decisions that making another one doesn’t even raise his heartbeat; it’s the struggle to get everyone else to man up which threatens his composure. Next to him, the rest of the political team are just a spread of caricatures, embodying all the weakness and panic we’ve come to assume politicians will display under pressure. The decision gets kicked further and further up, and then gets kicked back down again. Through it all, Rickman is trying to do the math on how to kill the least number of people, and Aaron Paul is white-knuckled about the risk of killing innocents, while everyone else is just panicked about the risk that anyone might find out they killed an innocent.
Meanwhile, we’re getting fitful shots of real excitement as the Kenyan spooks on the ground try to figure out a way to finish the mission without hurting anyone who doesn’t have it coming. Barkhad Abdi has to carry most of this action, and pitches it just right, as a man who’s fed up of a frightening job, and still trying to do it properly anyway.
The sneaky bit sitting at the heart of it all is Helen Mirren; it’s only as I revisit the whole movie in my head that I realise that she’s the quiet villain of the piece, and has been all along. Almost the first thing she does is rebuke her team for stripping out the weapons from the Reaper; it seems at first like a controlling boss getting grumpy about details, but by the time we’re done, it’s clearly our first tip that she’s come to work in the hope of blowing something up. Mirren spends the whole movie being calm, and reasonable, and increasingly manipulative. It’s not just that when all you’ve got is a couple of Hellfires, everything looks like a target; she’s been hunting these people too long to let them get out of this day alive, no matter what it costs. Every little step brings her closer to her aim, until it’s all done and there’s blood everywhere, and she starts methodically cleaning things up, a murderer who knows she’s gotten away with it.
If you look at it that way, it’s a lot more interesting than its marketing. As a nailbiting movie about whether you can kill one to save many, it’s too contrived and overcooked to take seriously; but as a movie about how a little nudge here and there can get everyone else to do the wrong thing so that you can get your kill - that’s more interesting. And truer to life, I suspect, than the frantic political circling which I think was supposed to get our attention.