John Wayne would not recognize the modern war film. Nor would the legendary Iowa-born actor who’s performed in every cinematic battle from Colonial America to the Vietnam conflict recognize modern warfare and the politics of fighting. That is the morass director Gavin Hood (“X-Men Origins: Wolverine”) tries to navigate in the drama, “Eye in the Sky.”
The day begins routinely enough for the seasoned and unfaltering British Colonel Katherine Powell (Helen Mirren, who you definitely want answering the phone at 3 a.m.). She’s charged with capturing a Kenyan terrorist “connected to extremists in Minnesota” (uhm, thanks for the shout-out… I think) and coordinating air surveillance with a U.S. drone pilot (Breaking Bad’s Aaron Paul).
But when the observed terrorists begin arming themselves for an imminent suicide bombing, Powell makes the call to nip the threat in the bud only to find herself stuck between a cadre of dithering politicians and the genuinely morally-conflicted Lieutenant who has to actually pull the trigger.
Hood wisely avoids mansplaining the feckless policies that allowed the terrorism threat grow in the first place and instead focuses on the moral dilemma of playing the ultimate eye in the sky — God — deciding who should live or die vis-à-vis collateral damage. Here the paralyzing question is whether or not the life of an innocent child is worth saving eighty victims in a suicide bombing.
Powell knows this is a moment Churchill would call her finest hour, but is constrained by a situation room full of politicians concerned with the optics and political fallout of a targeted missile strike. (In this, his last screen role, Alan Rickman is perfectly cast as her superior who is perennially exhausted by the indecisiveness in the room.)
“Eye in the Sky” is provocative, well-written and riveting precisely for the moral ambiguity of sacrificing scores to save a single life in order to win the “propaganda” war, as one politician admits, against terrorists who organize in populated areas under the safety of human shields.
Craftily executed so moviegoers share both Powell’s frustration and the skittishness of politicians reluctant to take responsibility in a world where the rules of engagement are as vague as the objectives of modern battle.
“Eye in the Sky” is one of the first films to broach this quandary, but it won’t be the last.
The wonderful Alan Rickman passed away earlier this year and this week’s “Eye in the Sky” is the award-winning British actor’s last screen appearance. (Rickman voices Absolem the Caterpillar later this year in Disney’s “Alice Through the Looking Glass.”) Hardly a movie-goer alive would be unfamiliar with Rickman’s popular body of work, which includes these iconic roles:
• Hans Gruber, Die Hard. Rickman pretended to be a terrorist but was, in fact, a criminal mastermind after millions in bearer bonds when he took charge of the Los Angeles Nakatomi Tower in what would be a cat and mouse game with visiting New York detective John McClane (Bruce Willis).
• Dr. Lazarus, Galaxy Quest. By Grabthar’s Hammer, this Tim Allen comedy is one of the most underrated sci-fi spoofs, with Rickman as the classically-trained actor typecast as a Mr. Spock-like spaceship science officer making a living off fans of the long ago cancelled show which has been taken seriously by an alien race who seek the cast’s help.
• Severus Snape, Harry Potter series. Rickman played the sarcastic potions expert at Hogwarts in all eight Harry Potter films transforming from a formidable foe to a fan favorite. Best quote, “I do not take cheek from anyone, Potter… not even ‘the Chosen One.’”