(Video on Demand, July 2016) As a fan of the under-appreciated Good Kill, I feared that the similarly themed Eye in the Sky would feel stale and dull. How many movies about military drones and their ethical consequences do we need? But, as it turns out, Eye in the Sky runs almost entirely parallel to Good Kill (to the point where the two operators in the first film could become the protagonists of the other with very few modifications) and feels more successful at putting together a suspense thriller rather than a character drama. Helen Mirren stars as a British general at the centre of an operation that ends up reaching more and more people around the world. As western agents get closer to wanted terrorists in Kenya, efforts to confirm the target’s identity and minimize collateral damage become thornier and thornier, spanning the simultaneous actions of specialists scattered all over the planet. (At the film’s widest moment, I counted seven different groups of characters from Kenya to London—twice—to Hawaii to Las Vegas to China to Singapore) As a portrait of modern warfare, Eye in the Sky can become dizzying, and its suspense is real—especially when Barkhad Abdi’s on-the-ground agent tries to influence events near to proposed strike site. Meanwhile, Alan Rickman turns in a dignified last performance as a general who leaves humanity at the door of his briefing room. As suggested by the emphasis on drone warfare and global decision-making, Eye in the Sky is an unusual thriller, and director Gavin Hood manages to strike a good balance between drama, suspense, ethics and straight-up entertainment. Some of the technology is a few years away, but much of the film’s cerebral considerations are real and the result is a modern war movie that feels quite unlike any other—including Good Kill. Both are worth seeing, perhaps even in a single evening.
(On Cable TV, July 2013) Director Paul Greengrass has carved himself a niche as someone willing to engage contemporary real-life issues in a highly naturalistic style. The approach isn’t always successful (the shakycam thing gets annoying quickly) but his last few movies have shown increasing polish, real-world relevance and surprising thrills. So it is that Captain Phillips tackles the real-life story of the 2009 Maersk Alabama cargo ship hijacking through the story of its captain Richard Phillips. As one expects from a Greengrass film, Captain Phillips takes a realistic approach to its material, delving into the minutiae of modern maritime shipping, presenting events in a deceptively unglamorous light and using handheld cameras whenever possible. (Which, thankfully, isn’t possible in establishing helicopter shots) Still, despite the rough images, there’s no mistaking the heroic dramatic arc of the protagonist, or the careful construction of the script. This is meant to be a punched-up version of reality (something that minor controversies surrounding the film have made clear) that, despite an unheroic climax in which the lead character demonstrates a textbook example of shock, is meant to leave viewers reassured. It works well: the film manages to combine real-world details with old-school suspense and thrills, leading to a result that feels both real and satisfying –especially in portraying how the Alabama tries to defend itself against pirates. Tom Hanks initially seems wasted as the everyman titular captain Phillips, but the role and Hanks’ portrayal get more complex and difficult as the film advances, leading to a final sequence that’s as fearless as anything the actor’s been asked to portray to date. Relative newcomer Barkhad Abdi also makes an impression as antagonist Muse, bringing some humanity to a role that could have been played as caricature. While Captain Phillips runs a bit overlong (especially during its third act, which seems to be purposefully repetitive), it’s a fine docu-drama and a refreshing antidote to so many overblown Hollywood thrillers.