“Eye in the Sky” stars Helen Mirren as Colonel Katherine Powell, a UK-based military officer in command of a top-secret drone operation to capture terrorists in Kenya. Through remote surveillance and on-the-ground intel, Powell discovers the targets are planning a suicide bombing and the mission escalates from “capture” to “kill.” But as American pilot Steve Watts (Aaron Paul) is about to engage, a nine-year old girl enters the kill zone, triggering an international dispute reaching the highest levels of US and British government over the moral, political, and personal implications of modern warfare.
Also starring Alan Rickman, Barkhad Abdi, Jeremy Northam, Iain Glen and Phoebe Fox, the film is directed by Gavin Hood (Tsotsi) and written by Guy Hibbert (“Prime Suspect”).
A COMMANDING PERFORMANCE
One of Director Gavin Hood’s key creative decisions was casting Academy Award winner Helen Mirren (The Queen) as Colonel Katherine Powell. Mirren, whose wide-ranging career has encompassed three additional Academy Award-nominated performances and a recent turn as gossip columnist Hedda Hopper in Trumbo, had never played a soldier.
The actress says she readied herself for the role by immersing herself in the script, discussing the character with Hood and consulting with a military advisor. “I wanted to have an understanding of my character’s trajectory by talking about the kinds of experiences she must have had and the things she would have overcome as a woman in the military,” explains the actress.
Mirren also infused Colonel Powell with qualities she’s observed on movie sets over the decades. “To be a commander in the military is a lot like being a film director — though obviously with much higher stakes — which is something I understand first hand… Above all, you have to make decisions and you have to make them fast. You can’t shilly-shally, ‘Is it the right decision, is it the wrong decision?’ In the thick of a battle like Black Hawk Down, you don’t have time to go, ‘Are we legally allowed to do this?’ because you have to think on your feet.”
In the contemporary warfare scenario depicted in Eye in the Sky, however, Mirren’s character is forced to debate nuanced rules of engagement with her civilian overseers. “In the circumstances we see in Eye in the Sky, legal questions are very much part of the process,” she says. “These people don’t want legal issues to come back and bite them in the ass a year later and find they’re being accused of war crimes.”
A PRINCIPLED DRONE PILOT, A GUN-HO GENERAL
AND A STREET-SMART SPY
Coming off of his three-time Emmy®-winning performance on the hit AMC series “Breaking Bad,” Aaron Paul assumes the role of Las Vegas-based drone pilot Steve Watts. “I just put myself in Steve’s shoes and tried to zip on that skin,” says Paul, who also consulted with a military advisor. “He showed us everything about how to control a drone,” Paul says.
Paul found the mindset of his character physically and psychologically challenging. “When I learned the controls, my spine started to hurt a little bit because it’s so nerve-wracking. It felt so strange that my character was in Las Vegas controlling a drone halfway around the world in Kenya. As I dove deeper into the character, I almost felt like it was really happening.”
Alan Rickman, (in one his final roles before his death), who has played such iconic villains as Professor Severus Snape in the Harry Potter films and Die Hard terror mastermind Hans Gruber, takes on the role of General Benson, Colonel Powell’s commanding officer.
In real life, the veteran British actor says he was never cut out for a military career. “When I was a schoolboy we had a thing called the Cadet Corps and I was thrown out of each one of the three disciplines for laughing,” Rickman recalls. “I suppose until now, because of my renegade spirit, I’ve always thought that playing a military officer was a bit out of my comfort zone.”
Preparing for his performance, Rickman worked hard to understand the military mindset embodied by General Benson. Although Eye in the Sky’s decision makers operate in a moral grey zone, Rickman’s character comes down unequivocally on the side of action over restraint. “My character has a very clear notion of how to control the rules of engagement and collateral damage,” he says. “I’m not sure I would be quite as clear-cut about that as General Benson is.”
While Benson enjoys the luxury of viewing terrorist activity from a 4,200-mile remove, Nairobi spy Jama Farah, played by Barkhad Abdi, puts his own life in jeopardy when he positions himself just a few hundred feet from the enemy. “I use a cellphone to control a tiny surveillance drone that looks like small flying beetle,” explains Abdi, who was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor for his role as a Somali pirate in Captain Phillips. “I send the beetle into the safe house and transmit the video of these terrorists to military people all over the world so they can see exactly what’s going on inside the house.”
Abdi, who fled to Minneapolis from war-torn Somalia at the age of six, says returning to Africa to shoot Eye in the Sky was as a reminder of the perils of technology-driven combat. “I come from a similar situation as the people on the ground in Nairobi,” he says. “For me, Eye in the Sky is not really so much about Al-Shabaab [Somalia’s al Qaeda affiliate group portrayed in the film]; it’s about what happens to innocent people who get caught up in situations where other people are doing wrong.”
“Eye in the Sky” had a premiere as the opening film at this year’s Cinequest Film Festival. It will roll out into North American theaters starting on March 11th.