Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Sat Mar 26, 2016 3:02 pm 
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The brave new world of modern warfare

South African actor-producer-director Gavin Hood's thought-provoking new movie, which features the excellent Helen Mirren, the late, great Alan Rickman (in his last physical appearance), and a large and able supporting cast, dramatizes one of the most troubling aspects of modern warfare: the detachment of its perpetrators from the harm they do. Though tiny drone cameras provide them with an "eye in the sky" so they can watch their human targets inside their houses, drone war pilots are playing a deadly computer game. Due to instant communications and an intricate chain of command, operatives at every level can assure themselves they are considering every moral as well as technical aspect of what they're doing. But the result is as blunt and cruel as ever, and a whole lot colder and more detached, when you're a thousand miles away from your victims. Meanwhile from the point of view of combat officers, the chain of command is so complicated and cut off from the action it's a wonder anything gets done.

Eye in the Sky is a curious combination of the suspenseful and the dry, but it's a whole lot better movie than Hood's previous foray into the "war on terror," his 2007 Rendition, with its unsubtle editorializing and generic Arabs. The new movie is "a tick-tock suspense exercise as well as a neat little ethical echo chamber" (Brian Robey, The Telegraph). Things go pretty much the way we might predict from the start, but thanks to intense agonizing and negotiation all along the line of command, it's not the destination but how we get there that counts. There is minute-to-minute suspense throughout the almost real-time unreeling of the operation against jihadists in Kenya that it chronicles.

We focus on a zealous senior British army officer, Colonel Katherine Powell (Mirren). She and the staff she commands have located the Nairobi safe house outpost of a leading figure of the East African Al Qaeda affiliate commonly known as Al-Shabaab (Arabic: الشباب‎, lit. "The Youth" or "The Youngsters"). Thanks to a local electronic drone-operating team in a busy section of Nairobi, one of them very much in harm's way (the excellent and lithe Somali Barkhad Abdi of Captain Phillips), and specialists in the US who can computer-analyze a remote photo to verify a person's identity, Col. Powell knows that the Al-Shabaab safe house they're watching contains, this very day, Somali jihadists, plus a British supporter, Susan Danford aka Ayesha AL-Hady (Lex King) and an American who has joined them. A "bug" drone camera shows that several of the jihadists are visibly gearing up for suicide bombings to be carried out shortly. It's therefore immediately imperative, the colonel is sure, to carry out "Egret," her mission to stop Danford, and stop the suicide bombings too. And so she insists, against initial objection from the higher-ups, that the mission must be changed from "capture" to "kill," calling in US drone weaponry -- manned from . . . Las Vegas!

Very early we've seen that right nearby the Nairobi safe house is a loving (non-jihadist) father (Armaan Haggio), mother (Faisa Hassan), and their cute young girl (Aisha Takow) ) who plays with a homemade rainbow-colored hula-hoop, and also sells her mother's loaves of bread out on the street at a little table, like kids selling lemonade. Alas, if we know this movie is about a drone strike, we can guess from the beginning what this little girls' fate will be. Ultimately, her visibility to the drone eye over the safe house causes the main slow-down in the execution of "Egret."

While Col. Powell is pushing to get action, high-level British government officials, legal, cabinet, and anxiously female, as well as the top military officer on the case, Lt. General Frank Benson (Rickman), argue, sweat, cry, and agonize over the little girl. She is the Objective Correlative of Egret's collateral damage. Benson becomes a convert to Col. Powell's views early on, and must struggle with the civilian officials' dithering.

Hood's mise-en-scène in this brainy thriller is complicated and impressive. Besides the Nairobi setting central to the piece, scenes move back and forth from the British war room containing Benson and government officials, to Col. Powell's staff room full of computers and screens, to the Las Vegas hi-tech drone HQ where two young drone operators, one male, one female, anxiously await orders on their very first day beyond training. Everyone at each of these levels can see the little girl selling the bread that the big drone eye sees.

But there is more electronic continent-hopping than that. Before the process ends, the British Foreign Secretary (Iain Glen) is electronically called on to seek his approval. He is in Singapore (ironically, for an arms trade fair) where he's eaten some shrimp he shouldn't have, and he's suffering from food poisoning, surrounded by staff and locals. In his embarrassing and weakened condition, he only augments the dithering. He's in no condition to make a firm decision! In a miracle of instant video-phoning, we even visit a the US Secretary of State in Mainland China, where he's dragged away from a game of pingpong. There's an American lady official too: in the whir of phone-chatting, I didn't catch who or where she was. But what's clear is that the Yanks are much readier to sign off on killing their own than the Brits. Join Al-Shabaab, in their view, and you give up not only citizenship, but the right to life. And this may gibe with fact, though we know that Obama has taken flak for drone killings, and especially for thus offing US citizens in Yemen.

I can't assess the authenticity of the Somalis or Kenyans as I could judge the Arabic in Rendition, but the complexity of the action is neatly engineered, and deftly edited, this time to produce an almost comical degree of awareness of the moral, legal, and political aspects of this operation. Whether they're ever really this fully gone into instantly like this, we get the point, that assessments take place.

It's all in the agonizing, which drives Col. Powell to a paroxysm of frustration and impatience, in which we in the audience begin to share as we see the suicide bombers suiting up in the drone "bug" camera's view -- knowing that however many may die here, more will be killed if they can blow themselves up in some crowded place. The writers manipulate us with tried and true method, introducing one more objection or one more person who must be consulted just as it seems maybe the operation has got a "go."

The drone pilots, played by Phoebe Fox and Aaron Paul, are presented as virgins, shattered by having to face the responsibility of collateral damage, limp and weepy when it's over. This puts the people who administer long distance death almost morally in the clear. And their supervisors' tergiversations show them to be riddled with doubts. All this highlights the moral complexities of drone warfare and presents those who wage it as fully, almost paralyzingly, aware of them.

Obviously it's not really always like this. Far from the innocent drone pilot virgins we see here, we know, from WikiLeaks revelations and a particular, horrifying Iraq video from Chelsea Manning (entitled "Collateral Murder" on YouTube) that sometimes jaded drone killers go rogue and carry out atrocities -- without blinking an eye, as if hey were squashing bugs, which is what humans look like on a computer screen filmed by an overhead drone camera. The cabinet isn't always watching, and the drone operators aren't always tearful about the horrors they perpetrate. But Eye in the Sky may need to color events in order simultaneously to be bearable, present the issues, and entertain. And that it does. The number of higher ups being consulted may be far-fetched, but the editing and pacing are nifty. All aspects of production are impressive. And Haris Zambarloukos' camera work is rich and flexible. To understand the dangers and complexities of modern warfare's brave new world this movie is essential viewing.

Eye in the Sky, 102 mins., debuted at Toronto and also showed at Cinequest and Miami festivals. It opened in US theaters 11 Mar. 2016.

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