Sunday, April 03, 2016

Eye in the Sky

Eye in the Sky wants us to consider the moral, legal, and logistical issues caused by the American and British use of drones in the War on Terror. The opening minutes of the film efficiently lay out the situation: A British colonel named Powell (Helen Mirren) has intelligence of a gathering of high-value targets in Nairobi. The targets include British and American nationals, including teenagers, known as members of Al Shabaab. The plan is to coordinate with Kenyan troops to capture the terrorists, but a small drone controlled by a local agent (Barkhad Abdi) gets a shot of suicide vests and explosives inside the terrorists' meeting place. Suddenly the mission changes, and Mirren's colonel must convince a host of superiors and politicians to approve a drone strike on the meeting and avert a terrorist bombing.

Director Gavin Hood (who also appears as an American military officer) bounces the action between several continents with energy and confidence. We always know where we are and why we're there. Most of the non-African scenes takes place in Powell's command center and in an office at Whitehall where a general (Alan Rickman in his final screen appearance) leads a group of politicians through the events. There are also Americans involved: We follow the pilots of a drone (Aaron Paul and Phoebe Fox) who serve as the "Eye in the Sky" and who will be called upon to fire the missile if ordered. Eye in the Sky, written by Guy Hibbert, has all the ingredients for a dark satire about the Western balance between politics and the prosecution of war. Hibbert's greatest idea is the lack of a final decision maker for the mission. Several politicians (including Ministers played by Iain Glen and Jeremy Northam) weigh in with equivocations, but the decision making process seems to have no center. The unseen Prime Minister and American President are insulated from accountability by their subordinates.

What complicates the decision to fire the missile is the appearance of Alia (Aisha Takow), a young Kenyan girl selling bread next to the terrorist compound. If the missile is fired Alia will certainly be killed in the explosion, but if the terrorists leave the compound the potential loss of life is much greater. The inclusion of Alia in the story is a form of special pleading on a par with Spielberg's red-coated girl in Schindler's List, and it sentimentalizes a situation which the makers of Eye in the Sky has already dramatized with great ruthlessness. Hood and Hibbert's argument is rigged to such an extent that we discover Alia's family is secretly educating her and letting her use a hula hoop (away from the eyes of disapproving adults) while the most wanted terrorist is a white British national who was "radicalized" by an African man. The playing to liberal sympathies is complicated by an ending that asks us to empathize both with those caught by accident in the War on Terror and with the Westerners making decisions about those same people. A film about the implications of drone warfare is certainly overdue in 2016, but the case that drone warfare is amoral is overstated here. Eye in the Sky will be remembered as Rickman's final film - and he brings great soul to a man who spends most of the film sitting at a laptop - but as a political work it is too broad by half.

Saturday, April 02, 2016

Work by Friends: Chris White's Unbecoming

(Full disclosure: Chris White, Emily Reach White, Teri Parker Lewis and other people involved with Unbecoming are friends of mine. Click here for more details on that and to read a review of one of Chris’s earlier films.)

I’m often daunted by the short film form, just as I am as a reader by short stories. The limitations of each form make the truths uncovered that much more powerful, and there is a case to be made that the work required to uncover those truths is more difficult. There is a reason we’re still reading the stories of Chekhov, Welty, and Cheever after all. Writer/director Chris White has worked in the short form before, and I even made my film debut in one effort, but the new Unbecoming finds White working with confidence on more challenging material. White bills Unbecoming, a 40-minute anthology of 5 short films, as a “Southern Gothic Comedy”, but don’t get the wrong idea. White isn’t interested in the comedy of Southern eccentricity so much as what has always interested him: the honesty, joy, pain, and pleasure of real moments between people. In the first chapter of Unbecoming a lonely, dignified older man (Michael Forest) shares a few minutes with a woman (Patti D’Arbanville) searching for her lost goat. The conversation they share offers a brief connection - and possibly a new reading of American history - but White’s script doesn’t force anything. Goats come back, and life goes on. Later, two other lost souls (Teri Parker Lewis and Jack Peyrouse) have some cross-generational conversation during a chance encounter at a fast food joint, That middle section feels the most conventional, as though the idea of the piece hadn’t fully been fleshed out, but the other chapters more than make up for it. The funniest chapter involves a bookish teen (Natalie Belz) and the self-involved coach (Aaron Belz) minding her in in-school suspension. After watching the young lady puncture Coach’s hopes with a few words I think that White may have a great high-school comedy in him.

My favorite chapter of Unbecoming is the fourth, which is also the most ambitious. It’s here that White reaches for all the power of a great short work in a story that touches on love, aging, choices, and most of all memory. (There’s also a gag about a local landmark that’s too good to spoil.) Lilly Nelson is excellent here as a woman who loves the man (Bill Mazzella) who doesn’t know how to handle her. There’s a scene of foreplay between Nelson and Mazzella that feels like something out of a French New Wave film and that serves as a testament to the creativity that come from limitations. White ends Unbecoming with a musical grace note in a scene between brother and sister (Shua Jackson and Phyllis Jackson) at their father’s funeral. That moment speaks to two of White’s larger concerns in this short collection: Time never stops, and we all just have to do the best we can.