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A question of conscience

Alan Rickman's last film Eye in the Sky explores the ethics of drone strikes in modern warfare

Richard Markham

Reporter:

Richard Markham

A question of conscience

Eye in the Sky (15)
Running time 1hr 42min
Rating ****

I FINALLY caught this gem of a film at the wonderful Regal Picturehouse in Henley. It is on general release now and due for a second short run at Screen One in Newbury’s Corn Exchange, in the latter part of May. Catch it then if you missed it this month.
The ‘Eye in the Sky’ is an unmanned US drone plane that keeps watch on a shabby house ina poor rebel-controlled suburb of Nairobi, Kenya, where visiting key Al-Shabaab terror suspects are expected.

A ‘24’-style surveillance operation, set on capturing the visitors, is controlled from a UK army baseby Colonel Katherine Powell, played by Helen Mirren, who herself answers to Lt Gen Frank Benson (Alan Rickman, in his final screen role). The General is located in Whitehall, surrounded by the politicians and civil servants charged with making the ultimate strategic decisions.
At a US military base, two newly-qualified drone pilots work what would seem a routine 12-hour shift.

In Nairobi, eyes on the ground are provided by a Somali agent and it is through his findings – at great personal risk – that priorities change. Now it is imperative that the conspirators are ‘neutralised’ immediately, but that is not straightforward – there is a problem.

Over a perfectly-paced 102 minutes, the drama plays out with never a wasted shot or line, constantly ratcheting up the tension, but always convincingly, as the main protagonists wrestle with the dilemma. Scenes point up the sometimes absurd contrast between the mundane routine of daily life and the peril lurking behind it. Rickman’s character is initially tripped up by a minor domestic buying decision, just as he is due at COBRA; in Nairobi a woman is berated by the occupying Muslim militia for revealing her wrists in public and at home the Foreign Secretary is temporarily disabled in the most basic way.
Yes, this is a thriller and it does thrill, but at its core it is a claustrophobic drama about how good people behave under extreme moral pressure, in the mode of Twelve Angry Men.

Great credit must go to veteran TV screenwriter Guy Hibbert (Prime Suspect, Omagh) and director Gavin Hood (Tsotsi, A Reasonable Man) for creating and maintaining just the right atmosphere. The main cast members are, of course, impeccable and the film is a fitting tribute to Rickman, to whom it is dedicated.
But for me, it is some of the supporting roles that add most, not least the portrayals of ordinary people caught up in the crossfire.
One of Rickman’s closing lines, in this film and in his career, sums it all up and will pierce you to the core. Go find out...

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