Eye in the Sky


The final onscreen performance of Alan Rickman is a good one.

The final onscreen performance of Alan Rickman is a good one.

(2016) Thriller (Bleecker Street) Helen Mirren, Alan Rickman, Aaron Paul, Phoebe Fox, Bakhad Abdi, Jeremy Northam, Iain Glen, Richard McCabe, Monica Dolan, Kim Engelbrecht, Ebby Weyime, Babou Ceesay, Faisa Hassan, Aisha Takow, Armaan Haggio, Carl Beukes, Bob Chappell, Daniel Fox, Jessica Jones, Michael O’Keefe, Laila Robins, Lex King. Directed by Gavin Hood

Warfare is full of shades of grey. The morality of killing other people for political or economic purposes is shaky to begin with but in modern war, killing can be done with the touch of a button and with a change from armies facing each other in remote places into terrorists in urban places, war can come to the population. Of course, in the 20th century that had already taken place but now there is no place a military strike can’t take place, or at least very few places with the advent of drones.

A multi-national task force is tracking an English radicalized terrorist (King) with ties to Al Habaab in Kenya. In an operations center in Britain, Colonel Katherine Powell (Mirren) is coordinating with her superior, Lt. General Frank Benson (Rickman) as they observe her activities in a house in a terrorist-run part of the city. They have eyes on through the use of drones, piloted by American airman Steve Watts (Paul). On the ground in Kenya they have Jama Farah (Abdi) who is observing the house directly.

At first they think they hit paydirt when their target meets with some high-level terrorist officers, but their satisfaction turns to concern when they discover that a suicide bombing is being planned for and executed out of the house. That changes the color of the mission and frantic calls start going up the chain of command asking for and receiving an authorization to use a Hellfire missile to take out the terrorists. But things get further complicated when a little girl sets up a bread stand outside the terrorist house; the drone controller begins to have doubts and the calls up the ladder take a more urgent tone. Suddenly those who were eager to authorize the mission earlier are passing the buck, while time ticks away. Is the life of a single girl worth the dozens of lives that might be taken if the suicide bombers carry out their mission?

I don’t know that the movie really intends to answer that question; in fact, it can’t really be answered. From a strictly numbers viewpoint the answer is no – the people who might be killed by the suicide bomber are no less innocent and no less important than the life of a little girl. The question really is does knowingly ordering an airstrike that will be likely the death of a little girl more monstrous than allowing a bombing to take place when it could have been prevented. And that’s where the waters become a little bit murkier because we get into political territory then.

But that’s as may be. As a movie, Eye in the Sky does a credible job of keeping the tension high, although there are times when I thought they were being overly redundant in explaining that when you bring politicians into a military matter, things tend to get worse rather than better for while a soldier is more interested in accomplishing their particular mission, a politician is more concerned about covering their own derrieres.

And in conveying that message, Hood inserted some prestigious performers in key roles. Mirren is as gifted an actress as there is in the business, and her hawkish, shrill colonel is as stiff as a ramrod, as pitiless as a predator and as patient as a boiling teakettle. Colonel Powell is in many ways the epitome of a military mind, very centered and focused on completing the task at hand. Powell in and of herself is basically not very likable, but Mirren makes her human, a deceptively difficult job.

The late Alan Rickman, who passed away this past January and who will be much missed by this critic, never disappointed during his career and went out on a high note. In all honesty his General Benson is the epitome of a liaison, trying to balance the needs of the soldier with the needs of the politicians and having to stand on one leg while holding an umbrella over his back with a teacup balanced on the tip of his nose. Rickman gives the part some humanity as the one character who truly sees both sides of the argument.

Paul, who won three Emmys for Breaking Bad hasn’t really had a role in the movies that has utilized him as well as this one did. He is an airman with a conscience, one who doesn’t blindly follow orders but questions them when the orders appear to be morally ambiguous. In many ways, he had the most complicated role of the three main leads, but he shows that his award-winning performances were no fluke.

Is this manipulative? You bet it is. There is nothing more innocent than a little girl who is trying to help her family by selling the bread her mama baked to her neighbors going to market. That makes the moral issue a bit more focused, but it is a bit lazy – I don’t doubt that those in command of executing drone strikes find any civilian casualties wrenching, whether the victims are cute little girls or old alcoholic men. Taking the life of a non-combatant is not an easy thing for the military, as Rickman so eloquently expresses near the end of the film: “Don’t dare to presume that a military man doesn’t understand the cost of war.”

This is a movie that, if you’ll forgive an unintended pun, flew under the radar. However it is a crackerjack of a movie that should be sought out on VOD or in the near future, on home video. The performances here are scintillating and the questions raised timely and difficult. In many ways this is not only a thinking person’s war film, but a suspense film of the highest order.

Hood is not really trying to send a political message, or at least I don’t think he is. He is simply presenting the world as it is; that when killing comes down to the touch of a button, the morality of it becomes far murkier. And that’s a very powerful subject matter indeed.

REASONS TO GO: Edge of the seat suspense. Tremendous performances by most of the leads. Grapples with the morality of modern warfare.
REASONS TO STAY: Is guilty of being manipulative. Drags in places.
FAMILY VALUES: Violent images, adult themes and rough language, as well as children in peril.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Rickman’s final on-screen appearance; he also lends his voice to Alice through the Looking Glass.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/28/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 95% positive reviews. Metacritic: 73/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Good Kill
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT: Embers

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Margin Call


Margin Call

Kevin Spacey discovers the wonders of Internet porn.

(2011) Drama (Roadside Attractions) Kevin Spacey, Paul Bettany, Jeremy Irons, Demi Moore, Zachary Quinto, Penn Badgley, Stanley Tucci, Simon Baker, Mary McDonnell, Aasif Mandvi, Ashley Williams, Susan Blackwell, Maria Dizzia, Jim Kirk. Directed by J.C. Chandor

Money makes the world go round, and certainly we all need it to get by. There are those, however, who can’t get enough of it and have plundered and pillaged their way into a global economic meltdown. The worst part of it is that there are those who knew what was about to happen but did nothing; they are at least complicit partners in the crime.

At a staid, respected Wall Street firm in 2008, layoffs are underway. A tap on the shoulder is the kiss of death as 80% of the workforce on this particular floor is about to be sent home. One of those being let go is Eric Dale (Tucci), a manager in the risk assessment team. As he is being escorted out, he hands a flash drive to his protégé Peter Sullivan (Quinto) and tells him it’s something he was working on and asks Peter to see if he can finish it. Then, somewhat strangely, he tells him to “Be careful.”

Well, that’s like catnip to a former rocket engineer like Sullivan so while the other survivors are out celebrating their stay of execution, Sullivan is working on the file and when he figures it out, the results are so monstrous that he has to call someone in. That someone is senior trader Will Emerson (Bettany) who in turn calls his boss Sam Rogers (Spacey), the head of trading.

What Sullivan has discovered is that the company has purchased a lot of mortgage-based securities that, if their value were to deteriorate by just 25% would mean that the companies losses would be greater than what the company was worth. That would mean bankruptcy and scandal and the end of the gravy train they’ve all been riding on.

During the course of the night, the findings are pushed up the ladder. The head of Risk Management Sarah Robertson (Moore) and her boss Jared Cohen (Baker) are brought into the loop and it soon becomes apparent they knew  a lot more about the situation than they had let on. It quickly becomes a case of looking out for your own tush as the firm’s British CEO John Tuld (Irons) flies in via helicopter as dawn breaks.

These executives will be making decisions that will have far-reaching economic implications, not to mention a moral dilemma as Tuld’s decision is to sell off the worthless securities before it becomes general knowledge that they’re worthless. Can Rogers order his traders to essentially destroy their own careers to save the firm? Should he?

The story is rather loosely based on that of Lehman Brothers (whose CEO is Richard Fuld) although there are certainly some factual differences. That there are those in the financial industry who played fast and loose with the rules and with morality there is no doubt. That the greed of banks, financial firms and those politicians who helped remove the safeguards and overseers that might have protected us from these rapacious sharks has put our economy down the tubes there is also no doubt.

Chandor, the son of a Merrill Lynch executive, has an insider’s perspective and he helps make a movie that really covers some fairly arcane numbers-based material without going too far over the heads of the average audience member. There’s some good writing here; understanding what happened in 2008 often feels like you need a degree in math just to grasp the basics. Here, it’s shown in fairly plain terms what happened to a lot of firms at the time.

The performances here are universally compelling. Spacey is more or less the focus of the moral dilemma; he alone of most of the executives has a pretty good wrestling match with his conscience. He isn’t possessed of a snowy white soul – he certainly is flawed – but at least his first thought isn’t of his own career but the ramifications on the general public when this gets out.

Irons is also amazing as the reptilian CEO. There is a moment when he’s rattling off the dates of all the crashes and downturns on Wall Street, seemingly not noticing how much closer together those dates are getting as the years go by. Does he really not notice or does he actually not care that each of those dates represent enormous human misery?

This isn’t what you’d call action packed fare; much of it takes place in conference rooms at high level meetings. It gets pretty talky at times. While this is mostly an indictment of the greed and arrogance of Wall Street, it also does put a certain onus on the general public for aiding and abetting, a charge which isn’t entirely unfounded. In that sense, this is as fair and balanced a portrayal of the meltdown as I’ve seen to date.

This movie puts a human face on the greed and how the mentality of CYA and testosterone-fueled “profits first, people second” culture in Wall Street made what happened in 2008 inevitable. This is the dark face of capitalism and that the executives sound uncannily like prison guards at Dachau only makes this movie more compelling.

REASONS TO GO: A very realistic look at what goes on behind the curtain on Wall Street. Terrific performances and a well-written script augment this.

REASONS TO STAY: A little bit on the talky side.

FAMILY VALUES: There’s a whole lot of bad language.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The movie was filmed mostly at One Penn Plaza in New York on a floor recently vacated by a trading firm.

HOME OR THEATER: I’d see this in a theater if you can.

FINAL RATING: 8/10

TOMORROW: In Time