A thriller led by veteran British actors Helen Mirren and Alan Rickman, along with Breaking Bad’s Aaron Paul and Academy Award nominee Barkhad Abdi, is on paper a recipe for success. And it does succeed, thanks to its powerful performances, remarkable direction from Gavin Hood, and the highest levels of cinematic suspense I’ve seen for a long time. The problem is, I can only really say those things about the film’s final act, which is exceptionally good. So good, in fact, you will probably leave the cinema forgetting how distinctly average much of the film was.
Colonel Katherine Powell (Mirren) is the commander of a mission to capture Al-Shabaab extremists in Kenya, but ultimately changes her plan to killing the targets rather than capturing them when she realises a bombing is imminent. This causes conflict between herself and her legal advisors, her superiors supervising the mission in London (including Rickman’s Lieutenant General Benson), and politicians including the Secretary of State. A conflict ensues comparing the tactical advantages of releasing the missile as proposed, with the potential collateral damage of innocent lives, plus its accompanying negative publicity. The concluding act sees the multiple voices in the operation conflicted as to whether to fire the missile as the situation becomes increasingly difficult.
But for the most part, this is a thriller film without the ‘thrill’. It’s rather an adequately made action-free war film which provides a remarkable insight into an often overlooked aspect of conflict – drone warfare. The conflicting political, military and, ultimately, moral ideologies lead to a tense final act in which the cast’s powerful performances succeed in raising the emotional stakes and suspense, to such a degree that you will forgive much of the movie for its blandness.
It’s commendable to make a war film which prioritises its powerful message about the potential costs of war, rather than mindless action and explosions. The problem is, it would seem that the final act was the initial idea of the film, which resulted in the rest of the film being, more or less, exposition and setting up the final act. Thankfully, the final act is so good that it’s not an issue. Particular praise should be given to the performances of Barkhad Abdi and Alan Rickman. As the latter’s final (live action) film, it’s a performance he no doubt would have been proud of. His frankness and realism as a veteran soldier powerfully present a character who knows too well the cost of war. Helen Mirren is impressive, yet there are other more memorable showcases of her talent, and her performance here seems merely ‘adequate’ by comparison.
Overall Eye in the Sky is an unusual and compelling entry into the thriller and war genres, which goes from ‘good’ to ‘great’ in its final section.