September 29, 2020

Eye in the Sky–a gripping if wordy drama about the justification (or lack thereof) of engaging in military action

Shoot to kill pilot and MPs daunted
When girl sets up stall next to most wanted

Tony Blair is not a liar. His decision to take Britain to war in Iraq was not based on back-of-a-fag-packet analysis. And calls for him to be tried in an international court of law for crimes against humanity is just not cricket. At least, that’s what he’s hoping the long delayed Chilcot inquiry will conclude. Political opponents think otherwise. His assertion that George Galloway’s indefatigable friend possessed weapons of mass destruction – or to use the former PM’s own words, “stockpiles of major amounts of chemical and biological weapons” which “could be activated within 45 minutes” – proved to be false. None were found. And his justification for military intervention, which was based on a “sexed-up” “dodgy dossier” full of copy and paste quotes and typographical errors from an American student’s PhD thesis, had more holes than a bullet-ridden plane shot down in friendly fire. Or as the UN’s former chief weapons inspector Dr Hans Blix put it, Tony Blair “misrepresented intelligence on weapons of mass destruction to gain approval for the Iraq War”.


The reason I bring the recipient of both the Presidential Medal of Freedom and Liberty Medal’s questionable motives and judgement under the spotlight is because the justification (or lack thereof) of engaging in military action is what lies at the heart of Guy Hibbert’s fine script and Gavin Hood’s skilfully directed movie, as alluded to by the opening quote from the Greek dramatist Aeschylus: “In war, truth is the first casualty.” With Colonel Katherine Powell (Helen Mirren) and Lieutenant General Frank Benson (the late Alan Rickman) in the role of Team Blair; a group of Al-Shabaab terrorists who occupy three of the top five places on East Africa’s most-wanted list in the role of Saddam Hussein and the US military’s so-called “personality identification playing cards” such as the King of Spades Chemical Ali; and the collateral damage estimation of a drone strike and the chances of killing an innocent child (Faisa Hassan as the innocent bread-seller Fatima Mo’Allim) in the role of WMDs and their ability to be activated within 45 minutes.

Not much happens in the way of action. For once the terrorists make their swift journey from Nairobi airport to a safe house in a militia-controlled compound, the remainder of the film is predominantly comprised of talking heads in three fixed locations: drone pilots Lieutenant Steve Watts (Aaron Paul) and Airman First Class Carrie Gershon (Phoebe Fox) wrestling with their consciences in a black box in Nevada; Colonel Katherine Powell and her intelligent officers barking orders from a hi-tech control room in Northwood HQ; and Lieutenant General Frank Benson and a host of government officials engaging in circuitous Yes, Prime Minister-type debates in a Whitehall boardroom (including Jeremy Northam as a sitting-on-the-fence Foreign Office minister, Brian Woodale as a cerebral Attorney General and Monica Dolan as a Clare Short-esque stickler for the truth). But the stakes are high, the tension is palpable and the resultant drama though wordy is gripping.

This is largely due to the taut script by Guy Hibbert, which flips between locations faster than the aforementioned cat-impersonator George Galloway in search of a seat in the “Mother of all Parliaments; sterling direction by Gavid Hood, whose adaptation of Athol Fugard’s novel Tsotsi won an Oscar for Best Foreign Film in 2005; and a terrific performance from an A-list cast, most notably Helen “Steely-Eyed” Mirren and Alan “Dry As A Bone“ Rickman, the latter delivering one of the most powerful and memorable lines of the film: “Never tell a soldier that he does not know the cost of war.” What also prevents the action from sinking into the tedium of so many courtroom-like dramas is the creative use of drone-cam, bird-cam and beetle-cam footage from remote airborne surveillance units which take us deep into the heart of a terrorist cell and capture the horror of collateral damage as Kenyan undercover agent Jama Farah (Barkhad Abdi) puts his life on the line to save an innocent young bread-seller from being caught up in the crossfire.

Not all is sweetness in light: the directorial decision to make the drone pilots wracked with guilt at pulling the trigger and teary-eyed at potentially sacrificing one innocent life to save up to eighty people from a suicide bomber in a busy shopping mall jars. And the to-ing and fro-ing between British and American politicians to grant permission to proceed with the airstrike goes round the houses once too often. But, overall, the film is an absorbing account of the pressures faced by military personnel and elected officials when asked to make an instant decision based on what the Joint Intelligence Committee called “sporadic and patchy” intelligence to balance the use of military force with international law and their private consciences with their public reputations. Faced with legal advice of “we could wait [until the chances of an innocent civilian being killed falls below fifty percent], but we need not wait” and military advice “we should not wait”, would you pull the trigger?

Verdict: 3/5

by Peter Callaghan

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