Her name is Alia. She is about ten years old and lives in a little house in Nairobi with her father Musa, a handyman, and her mother
Fatima, a baker. She goes to school and likes to play with her brightly colored hula hoop—two things that are frowned upon, to say the least, by most of her
neighbors. Alia must hurriedly put away her homework when callers come to the house, and Musa admonishes her when she pulls out her hula hoop in front of one of his
customers. “These people are fanatics!” he tells her after the customer has gone.
Gavin Hood’s new thriller Eye in the Sky begins and ends with Alia, who is played by the endearing child actress Aisha Takow in
her debut. Every day, Alia goes out to her usual spot in the neighborhood to sell the bread her mother bakes. What Alia
could not possibly know is that behind the wall of her usual spot is a safe house for terrorists.
British and American military intelligence, however, are very much aware of it. Through their state-of-the-art spyware, they
have traced three radicalized Westerners—two British nationals and an American—to that house, and they are watching them prepare for a suicide bombing.
Gung-ho British Col. Katherine Powell (Helen Mirren) has been tracing the British terrorists for years, and wants to order an
immediate drone strike to prevent the murder of dozens of innocent Kenyans. But the spyware also shows Alia selling bread
outside the house, and Powell’s higher-ups in the Foreign Office—including Gen. Frank Benson (Alan Rickman, in one of his
last performances)--fiercely debate the morality of bombing the house when there will be obvious collateral damage.
This debate soon surges around the world via Skype, with various British and American officials (played by such stalwarts as Jeremy
Northam, Iain Glen and Michael O’Keefe) finding the usual ways to pass the buck. Meanwhile, Kenyan-British agent Kama Farah
(Barkhad Abdi) tries to defuse the situation on the ground, and American drone pilot Steve Watts (Aaron Paul) agonizes at the prospect of being ordered to make the strike.
Eye in the Sky starts slowly, but builds to nail-biting suspense.
Guy Hibbert’s taut screenplay is simultaneously panoramic and claustrophobic, spreading the mood of desperation to meeting halls and backrooms across the globe. Eye in the Sky presents a
moment in history—as with the Civil War and both World Wars—in which innovations in military technology outstrip
humankind’s ability to deal with them, both militarily and morally. Just as no one was prepared for what a Gatling gun, mustard
gas or the atomic bomb would do, so no one was prepared to make the decisions arising from the existence of spyware and drones.
Rickman, in one of the last lines he would ever speak on camera, was given the summation of Eye in the Sky, which he tells a
supercilious civilian functionary. “Don’t ever tell a soldier,” he says, “that he doesn’t know the costs of war.” Some have
interpreted this as letting the military off the hook for the horrors of drone strikes, but I see this as saying that no one—at least no
one in an official decision-making capacity—can escape blame. The ultimate message of Eye in the Sky is the same as any other
antiwar film ever made: there are certain decisions human beings were never meant to make. You can add another point: Power has nothing to do with wisdom.
Around the world from Alia, another child—eight-year-old Alton,
played by Jordan Lieberher—is also in danger. When we first see Alton, at the beginning of Jeff Nichols’ Midnight Special, he is
holed up one night in a Texas motel room with Roy (Michael Shannon, Nichols’ regular star) and Lucas (Joel Edgerton). Roy
and Lucas have covered and taped the windows; the motel TV shows a news broadcast declaring an Amber Alert for Alton.
However, Roy and Lucas are trying to rescue Alton, not kidnap him. Roy is Alton’s father, Lucas one of the very few old friends
Roy can trust. Alton is not in danger from them, but from the fundamentalist cult that has held him captive for the past two
years. The U.S. government is also interested in Alton—or, more specifically, in Alton’s apparent extrasensory powers, the same
powers that caused the cult to declare Alton its prophet.
To say more about the plot of Midnight Special would give far too
much away. There are more characters involved, including Alton’s mother Sarah (Kirsten Dunst), the sinister cult leader (Sam
Shepard), and a National Security Agency investigator (Adam Driver) who is far more sympathetic than his bosses to Alton and
his protectors. (Once again, drones are involved). There is plenty of violence—some of it explicable, some not—and a finale that
answers some of the audience’s questions, but not all.
Midnight Special is something of a departure for Nichols. As with his previous three films—Shotgun Stories, Take Shelter, and Mud—Nichols is mostly concerned with the mysteries of the
human heart in Midnight Special. But the new film is his first real foray into science fiction. Take Shelter, Nichols’ masterpiece
to date, concerns a man (again played by Shannon) who is compelled by a series of terrifying, apocalyptic visions to sacrifice
everything he has to build a tornado shelter for his wife and daughter. At every point in Take Shelter, from beginning to end,
the audience is never sure whether the man is insane. In Midnight Special, the events are just as apocalyptic, but they are
definitely not the figment of Roy’s imagination. The film is strongly reminiscent of both Starman and Close Encounters of the Third Kind, but its tone is grimmer and more fatalistic than
either. It also feels tighter and less leisurely than Nichols’ previous films, and the cast, as always in a Nichols film, is first
-rate—especially (as always) Shannon.
Midnight Special is of a piece with Nichols’ previous films in its
basic theme: the extremes to which people will go to save the ones they love. Roy’s love for Alton leads him to sacrifice
everything to save the boy—including, in the end, even Alton himself. Roy is not in a happy place at the end of Midnight Special, but the look on his face leaves no doubt that he made all
the right choices.