What is the cost of fighting terrorism? That is the broader question looming over Eye in the Sky. Directed by Gavid Hood (Tsotsi, Ender’s Game), the film narrows this problem down to the scale of one single drone strike in Kenya. After trailing these terrorists on the East Africa Most Wanted list for years, Colonel Katherine Powell (Helen Mirren) leads a mission to selectively bomb the house they are meeting in. Unfortunately, there are strict rules of engagement in this situation and before any strike can be launched she needs the permission of General Frank Benson (Alan Rickman, Harry Potter) and several politicians who have conflicting viewpoints.
Drone strikes and questions of their legality and morality have been highlighted in the news recently and Eye in the Sky displays the complexities and minutiae that are inherent in military missions. A major theme of the film is responsibility and blame. Who really makes a decision that, while killing terrorists, could risk harming innocents? Is it the pilot who pulls the trigger? The Colonel that gives the order to fire? The general or several politicians that defined their rules of engagement? The film implies that responsibility is held at each point in the chain of command and the aftermath of these decisions is felt by everyone. One of the most interesting points brought up in the ongoing discussion is about the larger implications of casualties. If they kill one child to save 80 people from a potential suicide bomber, will the British government become reviled? Is vilifying the terrorists in the media worth allowing a bombing to occur? Again, the movie smartly avoids providing direct answers to these questions and is impressively balanced in portraying each opinion.
Furthermore, the film explores how political involvement in the military matters can undermine their efficacy. Beyond morality, each politician in the film considers the political impact of the bombing. How will this affect their career? Their party? In one case a ranking politician asks to a dissenting voice, “Will you be the one who has to go on morning news shows to explain this?”. The film shows how these considerations cripple the politicians with indecision as they continually “refer up” to avoid culpability, despite the time-sensitive nature of the operation. When they begin to rely on predictive damage models to make their decisions, the question of reliability of data is also raised. How much of these models are based on fact and can they change if a ranking military official wants them to? The films shows the desperation that can be created by indecision at a critical moment.
Eye in the Sky is primarily a film about these ideas but it does however have brief action scenes in Africa. Barkhad Abdi of Captain Phillips (He is not the Captain now) plays their man on the ground. Hood deftly uses these scenes to contrast the political risks with the dangers agents in that position take trying to fight terrorism everyday. For the the most part they are well staged. The only flaw is many of the effects are obviously computer generated and can break the otherwise successful immersion.
When decisions are finally made, the film avoids simple resolution. The actions taken – and the actions not taken – play out and the consequences are felt by all. Did someone “win” the arguments? Was the mission successful? What does “success” even mean in the this scenario? As the credits roll, these are the questions that linger over the characters and the audience. Eye in the Sky, succeeds by raising these questions and enforcing the uncertainty of any possible answer.
Directed by first timer László Nemes, Son of Saul focuses on a subgroup of prisoners called Sonderkommando who were forced to help Nazis in their usage of gas chambers during WWII. Saul (Géza Röhrig) is one of these prisoners and during the first third of the film he performs his duties, including moving corpses and cleaning bloody gas chambers, without disdain or disgust. The single expression he shows is one of pragmatism, not horror. This continues until his priorities shift after he finds a certain body. Saul discovers his illegitimate son’s body and does everything he can to hide it from cremation so he can provide a proper burial.
The film focuses almost entirely on Saul. The camera closely follows him and there are very few cuts, similar to the shooting style of Birdman. Furthermore, Nemes chose to use the Academy ratio (not widescreen). Typically, using this technique in the modern era implies unnecessary nostalgia on the part of the filmmaker as was the case with The Artist, but here it is effective. Nemes uses the smaller area to create a strong sense of location. At any moment it feels like there is something chaotic occurring just off-screen, but we can’t tell because our focus is on Saul – literally. The backgrounds, particularly the most explicit ones, remain blurred and out of focus. These techniques successfully create a world beyond the frame of the film and show the banalization of tragedy. Dead bodies aren’t in focus because they’re not special and how can they be with so many around?
Yet the formal strengths of the film are undermined by its narrative turns. As Saul becomes increasingly desperate and endangers others to ensure the proper burial of his son, he becomes almost hypocritical. He takes risks that could potentially harm the escape plans his peers have worked so hard to execute just to save someone that has already been lost. And after sending hundreds of bodies to the incinerator, what makes his son’s body special? There is the famous quote by Joseph Stalin that “One death is a tragedy; one million is a statistic.” but here Saul’s actions only appear selfish, not tragic, and any small payoff that could have been produced is crippled by a cheap, cop-out of a conclusion.
Son of Saul recently picked up the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film. Despite the Academy being averse to gruesome subjects, they have consistently shown they love movies about the Holocaust. Why? Maybe because it’s morally unambiguous. Maybe because it’s a time when the US was completely in the right and played the hero. Or maybe it’s just that people are too afraid of backlash to criticize a film based on the Holocaust, fearing that others will think they are belittling one of the greatest tragedies in history. It’s important to note that the film and its subject, no matter how important or sensitive, are separate from each other and criticizing one does not equal criticizing the other. Son of Saul is another example of a historical drama overrated by critics, likely due to its subject matter.
“My life is like a Call of Duty campaign on easy. I just go around and fuck shit up.” Yes. That’s a real quote.
Terrence Malick’s newest film continues the downward trend started by 2012’s To The Wonder. The film follows Christian Bale playing a character that may or may not have been given a name. In fact, I can’t name a single character in the movie despite having just seen it as none are memorable or remotely developed. Bale appears to be a successful Hollywood screenwriter that gets sucked into the excesses of Tinseltown while dealing with some inner turmoil. What exactly is that turmoil? It seems to have to do with the loss of a younger brother and conflict with an authoritative father. If that sounds familiar, it is. This was the main thrust behind the significantly superior The Tree of Life (one of my favorite films) and there are glimpses, however brief, of the emotional intimacy found in that work. Unfortunately, these instances are too few and infrequent to carry the film.
Knight of Cups does break into new territory with its subject matter though. Malick’s films are always told using a childlike sense of wonder and imagination with many of the main characters being children. This style continues but is now applied to adult emotions, namely lust and hedonism, as well as seedier environments. Bale’s character moves through strip clubs, exorbitantly wealthy parties, and numerous partners in his descent and while this provides an intriguing contrast, it is never fully utilized. Any potential is squandered through the meandering of the narrative.
At its worst, Knight of Cups plays almost like self-parody. Every Malick trope is here. Vaguely spiritual whispered voice-overs? Scenes of frolicking on a beach? Majority of the film takes place at dusk with the sun behind the character’s head? Check, check, and check. All of these aspects have been successful at times in his previous movies, but the difference here is that there is no cohesion between the scenes. These films are becoming increasingly like grab bags of thoughts taken randomly from Terry’s bedside notebook and spoken by talented actors over beautiful imagery. Unfortunately, the stunning visuals and vague hints at depth are no longer enough to carry a film this unfocused. There are only so many scenes of a character reaching out of the window of a moving car to do hand jives while a pastor philosophizes that an audience can take.