Eye in the Sky (2016)

★★★★

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Eye in the Sky PosterDirector: Gavin Hood

Release Date: April 1st, 2016 (US); April 15th, 2016 (UK)

Genre: Drama; Thriller; War

Starring: Helen Mirren, Aaron Paul, Barkhad Abdi, Alan Rickman

I often find that the most engaging films are those which, in one way or another, encourage viewers to invest more than just the alertness of their eyeballs. Films that oil the brain, that challenge you to weigh up testy themes or unfurl complicated arguments both in the cinema and later at home. Some of the best movies reflect the prevailing zeitgeist (Boyhood), while others re-evaluate histories (Bridge of Spies). There are also those which, having aged over time, can be examined under the guise of new perspectives (2001: A Space Odyssey). Eye in the Sky is one of the former, its content exclusively in tune with the woes of modern drone warfare and, unsurprisingly, it’s a heart-thumper.

A low key opening sequence outlines the active operation, the personnel involved, and the everyday atmosphere at play. There’s Colonel Katherine Powell (Helen Mirren), a senior intelligence official who has tracked down a group of terrorists residing in Nairobi, Kenya. She wishes to eliminate the group, one of whom is a former British national, and has the support of Lieutenant General Frank Benson (Alan Rickman). Evidently, the duo are used to navigating tough situations from afar — they are working from separate UK bases — though the situation Powell and Benson are about to encounter is probably as tough as it gets. That is, juggling the life of young girl selling bread in the vicinity of their prospective drone strike.

Gavin Hood’s film is formatted almost to match that of a 24 episode, which is to say it ticks along more or less in real time as people in suits number-crunch death percentages and debris projections. Foreshadowing is a factor too: Rickman, superbly authoritative yet typically human, drolly sweats over dolls and toys as the Lieutenant General, unaware his job will shortly have him deciding the fate of a child. Screenwriter Guy Hibbert colours his characters with titbits of everyday information in an attempt to humanise them, quite successfully given the amount on-screen. We learn, for instance, that American drone pilot Steve Watts (Aaron Paul) is only monitoring the controls of such a weapon in a bid to counter his college debt.

These people are secure, detached from a teetering war zone in Nairobi, their most immediate danger apparently food poisoning — Iain Glen’s queasy British Foreign Secretary struggles with an upset stomach, a first world problem if there ever was one. You wonder if they actually care about the civilians caught in their crosshairs or whether it is all just a political game of Pass the Buck (there was a laugh of incredulity in my screening following one such buck-passing incident). Some do care, primarily those ordered to get their hands dirty: Watts and new recruit Carrie Gershon (Phoebe Fox) wear the emotional baggage of their piloting well, while Barkhad Abdi’s undercover ground agent evokes conscientiousness despite having to navigate the tumultuous streets.

Others struggle with the dilemma too — as time goes on, it increasingly looks as though the terrorists are about to commandeer an enormous suicide attack, however their assassination in present circumstances would almost certainly kill the aforementioned young girl. We see timid bureaucracy in action; the chain of command gains branches by the second as nobody seems willing to make the final call, apart from Powell. This is militancy versus diplomacy and she is firmly aligned with the former, calculated and desperate, unwavering in her kill-or-be-killed motto. Mirren compels throughout and rules those around her with a cracked iron fist. At times you feel her judgement has been clouded by her innate desire to end what must be a years-long operation.

It’s possible too that she has been desensitised by process: surveillance technologies used by the conglomerate of global forces (borders are irrelevant in this inter-connected world) include spy cameras disguised as airborne birds and bugs (brick walls are irrelevant too). These trinkets embody the disconnect between tangible ground activities and those making the crucial decisions from afar, and such technologies likely lighten the load for senior decision-makers such as Powell. Interactions between UK and US agencies hint at the statistical and mechanical nature of modern warfare, a notion embodied by the varying systems of collateral damage interpretation between the two nations. It’s not a matter of saving every life, but rather reducing the total number of deaths.

Hibbert’s screenplay ties in real-world strands by referencing the ongoing migrant crisis (“Well let’s hope she’s not coming back,” bemoans Powell regarding the homegrown British terrorist) but really Eye in the Sky is all about the immorality of war in 2016. The best result the military’s facial recognition software can hope for is a “highly probable” match, which would be great in a university science lab but not ideal when lives are at stake. Any margin of error is amplified in battle and the debates between officials take on that extra weight, a weight that we also incur as we sympathise with various characters. Megan Gill edits Haris Zambarloukos’ cinematography to full effect, highlighting the stark anomalies in Nairobi: Gill cuts from the young girl setting up her bread stall to the extremists preparing their suicide vests, mere metres separating the two.

The film avoids problematic whirlpools and discriminatory icebergs by riding a wave maturity — it would be very easy to take a side, but as the piece nears conclusion it shines a blatantly more rounded light on a number of brutes earlier seen authoritatively commanding vehicle checkpoints. Unlike London Has Fallen, which clumsily waded its way into the drone debate, Eye in the Sky sets out to discuss and not to distract. Clearly they are different films in a tonal sense, aimed arguably at different audiences, but both speak the same thematic language and only the latter does so with any credibility.

There is one issue that the film only manages to partially iron out. You’ll almost certainly enter this having already formulated an opinion one way or the other, especially given the relevance and significance of drone warfare in today’s political climate. And although it is possible you’ll be made to reconsider that opinion — it helps that Hood’s gripping direction increasingly positions you alongside the toiling decision-makers — chances are the events depicted will not shift anyone’s viewpoint. This isn’t necessarily a reflection on the movie itself, but rather the divisiveness of its real-world content.

People band around the phrase “spoils of war” in relation to any profits gained through military victory. But it is war that spoils, and here we see that spoiling in action: it spoils ethical frameworks established by the civilised strand of humanity; it spoils urban locales that have hosted and continue to host generations of livelihoods; and, crucially, it spoils the daily existence of normal people living their normal lives. Eye in the Sky suggests war spoils some people more than others, and while that mightn’t be a new conclusion, the method of warfare on display is as morally challenging as it gets.

Eye in the Sky - Aaron Paul

Images credit: IMP Awards, Collider

Images copyright (©): Entertainment One, Bleecker Street

Trumbo (2016)

★★★

Trumbo PosterDirector: Jay Roach

Release Date: November 25th, 2015 (US); February 5th, 2016 (UK)

Genre: Biography; Drama

Starring: Bryan Cranston, Diane Lane, Helen Mirren

Trumbo is about two things: the trials and tribulations of a successful screenwriter, and the cultural acceptance of an uncommon political discourse. We spend time examining both, but never truly get into the meaty centre of either. Said screenwriter is Dalton Trumbo (Bryan Cranston), a creative caught up in a battle of black-and-white politics; it’s us versus them and US versus Russia. “The Blacklist was a time of evil,” he bemoans, and it probably was. Fighting against tonally light content, we don’t see that evil.

It is mid-20th century America and Hollywood has been torn in two, ambiguous grey areas nowhere to be seen (certainly not in this filmic incarnation). There are those with ties to Communism and ideals driven by wealth distribution, none more so than the aforementioned Trumbo. Then there are the others — studio heads, directors, actors — who bear defiant patriotism, unwavering in their hatred for the Communist agenda. The turbulent ripples become clear, crossing the personal-professional divide almost instantly: “[Trumbo is] among us. Sure as hell ain’t one of us,” says one director, and he ain’t referring to movie guilds.

Director Jay Roach employs newsreels that lambast Communism by throwing the words “radical” and “anti-democratic” around. Trumbo himself, though grouchier as the film wears on, is a beacon of idealism: the imaginative writer, accepting, and willing to give the benefit of the doubt to those on the other side of the fence. When he’s not doing that, Trumbo is storytelling — we see him awaken in a bathtub and pick up his pen as if he hadn’t stopped for a snooze break. He ponders thoughts before his typewriter, smoke clouding his headspace, evoking a sense of artistic megalomania. Cranston plays him well, naturally manoeuvring between cartoonish cheer and patchy introversion.

The movie moves with welcome momentum, but there is a lack of bite in each narrative stroke. That the rabble of screenwriters charged with Communist associations are, at worst, fairly wealthy white males ought to be more of an issue given the film’s discriminatory context, but that is only brushed over during a brief conversation between Trumbo and fellow writer Arlen Hird (Louis C.K.) — the civil rights movement becomes a meagre agent of friction between father and daughter, forgotten after a heart-to-heart. In fairness, unfair haranguing by Supreme Court magistrates does show us how little progress we have made in terms of political jousting and partisan stubbornness.

You would think the criminalisation of the Hollywood Ten (as the writers are collectively known) would have a creative impact on the film industry, but we don’t really see any immediate consequences. Irrespective of politics, incarceration means a loss of talent and that loss is skimmed over even after Trumbo and co. are released from prison and subsequently blacklisted. The workaround is fairly obvious: sell one’s work under somebody else’s name. Trumbo does just that, penning and then passing on the critically acclaimed Roman Holiday (1953) to his untainted screenwriter pal Ian McLellan Hunter (a typically effective Alan Tudyk).

It’s when he decides to work with B movie studio exec Frank King (John Goodman) as a script curator that we see some sort of occupational impact — these films are shoddy, far from Trumbo’s intellectual norm. As King puts it, “Quality minimum; quantity maximum”. Goodman’s arrival ushers in a Coen touch, a bout of heightened satire and craziness, and probably the film’s best moments too (a baseball-bat-wielding Goodman is a sight to behold). This stuff is enjoyable, though you do get the sense the filmmakers are too caught up in moulding an accessible film to carve out something significant.

What this means for the characters, and Trumbo especially, is a lack of piercing emotional rigour during moments of plight. Forced to strip off all of his clothes, Trumbo’s entry into jail is clearly demeaning and disheartening, however it should be tinged with so much more emotional verve. But up until that point there is no gravitas urging you to sympathetically invest in the scribe. Trumbo’s only emotional ties are those the film does not really have to earn: to his family, including daughter (Elle Fanning) and wife Cleo. Fanning shows spark and in spite of her fairly thankless role — wife and mother — Diane Lane manages to imbue Cleo with a dose of likeability.

Helen Mirren channels her inner Rita Skeeter as Hedda Hopper, the media’s harshest Communist critic. “Bad box office? No, bad politics,” she says, more concerned with political allegiance than money which, given her job relies on a thriving Hollywood, is quite something. John Wayne is arguably her biggest ally from within the industry, played here with brutish aplomb by David James Elliot. Perhaps somewhat surprisingly, other big anti-Communist thinkers such as Joseph McCarthy are tiptoed around, Roach opting instead to focus on Hollywood figures.

On the aesthetic face, lots of high-waisted trousers and charcoal fedoras help to amplify the time period. Pathé-esque newscasts look real — some are, such as one depicting a John F. Kennedy film critique (two thumbs up) — while Roach’s use of newspaper prints to relay the national agenda is a nifty touch. These visual styles culminate in a retro flavour that generates more authenticity; it’s no Carol, but it’s good. Vowels are even offloaded with deeper verve. Cranston’s Trumbo sounds like someone who once resided in one of those old, grainy video recordings from many decades past.

Screenwriter John McNamara has a lot to juggle content-wise so perhaps the hit-and-miss nature of Trumbo shouldn’t come as much of a surprise — Kirk Douglas (Dean O’Gorman) and Otto Preminger (Christian Berkel) arrive without warning as the film reaches its scattergraph finale, name-checking Kubrick and negotiating screen credits. The film is essentially a trivial overview of a much more interesting period in US and Hollywood history than is given credit. But Trumbo is wholly watchable and Cranston commendably holds the screen, amounting to a piece worth its papery weight in entertainment.

Trumbo - Cranston & Mirren

Images credit: IMP Awards, Collider

Images copyright (©): Bleecker Street