eye in the sky
Helen Mirren stars in Eye in the Sky which is showing in Berkeley

The steady drip of films attempting to make sense of our apparently never-ending ‘War on Terror’ continues. Some, of course, are better than others, but almost all tell their stories entirely from the perspective of Western protagonists struggling with questions of morality and personal conscience.

Eye in the Sky (currently playing at Landmark’s California Theatre and opening at Landmark’s Piedmont Theatre in Oakland on Friday, April 1) is the latest such film, but does a better job than many of its cinematic predecessors. Despite focusing on the anguish experienced by several of its characters, its blunt appraisal of others is a welcome and refreshing change.

Prefaced by Aeschylus’ famous quote “In war, truth is the first casualty” (later adapted by author Phillip Knightley, who entitled his groundbreaking history of war propaganda ‘The First Casualty‘), Eye in the Sky travels back and forth between four locations: a British military base, a government office in London, a US Air Force station in Nevada, and Kenya, where we see a Muslim family going about their daily business selling bread and repairing bicycles.

Though based in the UK, Colonel Katherine Powell (Helen Mirren) is leading a mission to capture a suspected terrorist in a Nairobi safe house, but she abruptly changes course when an on-the-ground agent (Barkhad Abdi) alerts her that another house resident may be about to launch a suicide attack. Now gung-ho to flatten the building via Hellfire missile, she’s eagerly supported by Lieutenant General Frank Benson (the late Alan Rickman), whose job it is to persuade reluctant cabinet members to change the mission and approve a strike.

The missile will be fired by American air personnel at Creech Air Force Base, but responsibility ultimately lies with the politicians in London. Will Powell’s eagerness and dogged effort to manipulate the ‘collateral damage’ forecast (primarily, the Nairobi family’s nine-year old daughter) convince the Foreign Secretary (Iain Glen) to give her the go-ahead?

Directed by Gavin Hood (Tsotsi) and written by Guy Hibbert, Eye in the Sky does several things well: its Muslims are less cartoony than usual and its representation of decision-makers as craven cowards and cold-blooded killers rings true, as does its depiction of stressed out and morally conflicted drone pilots. (Hood wisely chose to turn down the Pentagon’s offer of filmmaking assistance, which surely would have resulted in a story colored in less critical shades.)

One of the film’s pleasanter surprises is the presence of Somali actor Abdi – Oscar-nominated for his performance in Captain Phillips – as the operator of some truly remarkable spy tech, including a bird and a fly that must be seen to believed (does such technology really exist?). After Abdi’s Academy Award moment in the sun, I expected the industry to quickly forget about him. It’s nice to be wrong sometimes.

As much old-fashioned suspense flick as thought-provoking drama, Eye in the Sky is just a little bit more honest about the ‘War on Terror’ than we’ve come to expect. It’s almost a relief to see a character like Frank Benson, a military man with no qualms about killing: that’s not how we want to perceive ourselves, but that’s who we are. Better to face the truth than ignore it.

Berkeleyside’s film writer John Seal writes a weekly movie recommendation column at Box Office Prophets, as well as a column in The Phantom of the Movies’ Videoscope, an old-fashioned paper magazine, published quarterly. Read more from Big Screen Berkeley on Berkeleyside.

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Freelancer John Seal is Berkeleyside’s film critic. A movie connoisseur with a penchant for natty hats who lives in Oakland, John writes a weekly film recommendation column at Box Office Prophets, as...