Starring: Helen Mirren, Alan Rickman, Aaron Paul, Barkhad Abdi, Phoebe Fox
Rated R for Some Violent Images and Language
Roger Ebert had a term for movies like "Eye in the Sky:" the "bruised forearm" movie. It refers to the arm bruises of the person next to you from grabbing them during the most intense scenes. "Eye in the Sky" is definitely a "bruised forearm" movie.
A British army officer named Katherine Powell (Mirren) is tasked with capturing a British national turned terrorist for al-Shabaab. Assisting her are a pair of drone pilots, Steve Watts (Paul) and Carrie Gershon (Fox). She is being watched by a group of politicians and Lieutenant General Frank Benson (Rickman). Katherine's mission is to capture her alive, but circumstances dictate more drastic measures. Political infighting puts the brakes on her plan, but just as she gets the green light for a strike, there's a new and terrifying wrinkle in play: a young girl has started selling bread right in the kill zone.
It's a great concept, and director Gavin Hood (who appears on screen in a minor role as Steve and Carrie's superior) keeps piling on the complications. Just when you think that things couldn't get more intense, they do. "Eye in the Sky" is one of the best kinds of thrillers: not only is it tremendously effective at raising the adrenaline, it succeeds at getting the audience to have an emotional investment in the outcome.
Hood understands the importance of claustrophobia (literal and figurative) in thrillers. The majority of the film takes place in small, cramped rooms. Even when it does venture outside, the shots are tight and we only have a limited view of what's going on.
Coming from an independent film background, it's no surprise that he also knows how important strong performances are. He directed the surprisingly sensitive "Tsotsi," which one the Best Foreign Film Oscar nearly a decade ago. As much as I liked that movie, this one is better. The story is stronger, and the tension is more real. Hood inserts some low-key gallows humor at the expense of the bickering bureaucrats who keep passing the buck, but Hood is smart enough to use that to enhance the story. As amusing as it can be, it raises the stakes as well.
The performances work, but no one does any showboating. The actors understand that the story is strong enough to stand on its own without any showing off. Helen Mirren is wonderful as always, and has little trouble convincing us that she's a military career woman. Alan Rickman, in his final live-action role, is also very good as the general negotiating with the diplomats. The real star is Barkhad Abdi. Although he had no interest in acting before being selected for "Captain Phillips" (and getting an Oscar nod in the process), he's a natural talent. He gives the best performance in the film as the man on the ground caught in a precarious situation.
"Eye in the Sky" is a smart and highly attuned thriller that will leave you completely drained, and that's a compliment. This is one of the year's best films.