Film & Television

Helen Mirren’s ‘Eye in the Sky’: Difficult Questions and No Easy Answers

The excellent cast is led by Dame Helen Mirren as Colonel Katherine Powell, the U.K. officer in command of the mission. (And, in case you were wondering, she is as elegant as ever, even if she’s wearing camouflage fatigues instead of a tiara.) Powell is clearly career military and she exerts her authority with cool determination. As she becomes more and more exasperated with the debates and delays, legitimately concerned that they will lose their targets, she takes matters into her own hands.

As Lieutenant General Frank Benson, the late (I would say “great,” but “magnificent” seems more appropriate) Alan Rickman appears in his last on-screen role. We initially see him befuddled, trying to figure out which doll he’s supposed to buy for his granddaughter. This is a somewhat obvious but effective set-up for his role in deciding the Kenyan girl’s fate. Experienced and a bit world-weary, Benson pushes the government officials to make a decision, any decision. And, Rickman delivers the final — memorable — speech of the film, reminding his colleague (and all of us) not to judge a soldier who has seen battle.

The two airmen, responsible for flying the drone are played by Aaron Paul and Phoebe Fox. The bulk of their performances takes place sitting in the dark (thousands of miles away from the plane, camera and bomb they control), but they do a tremendous job conveying tension and tenderness. Although others are making the decisions, they are torn apart by their duty. Barkhad Abdi, Oscar nominee and BAFTA winner for his role as the pirate chief in Captain Philips, is equally strong as Jama Farah, a Kenyan surveillance expert and the only person on the team who is actually on the ground and in danger. When a local boy sees him controlling a beetle-sized drone, he tells the boy that it’s a video game, and the similarity isn’t lost. He risks his life in an attempt to save the girl, Alia, played with simple truth by newcomer Aisha Takow.

At Women’s Voices for Change, we often look at movies to see if they pass (most fail) the Bechdel Test. Named after cartoonist Alison Bechdel, the requirements are essentially that the movie has to (1) have at least two women in it, (2) who talk to each other, (3) about something other than a man. Eye in the Sky could have been made without many women at all. Every cabinet member and military officer could have been played by a man, and I have no doubt that not so many years ago, they would have been. Not only is it encouraging to see women in so many roles that are not gender traditional (mission commander, co-pilot, Undersecretary of State, identity analyst), but motives and feelings aren’t distributed along expected lines either. There are equal parts compassion and determination displayed by men and women alike.

Eye in the Sky is an excellent film and an important one. War by its very nature creates difficult decisions — never more so than today. When the movie’s over you may agree with the choices that have been made or you may not. But, you wont soon forget them.

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