Thursday, 28 July 2016

Men! What are they like?

Jenny gives 4 laugh-out-loud, ego-bound stars to Athina Rachel Tsingare’s Chevalier

Some years ago I was part of a team facilitating a series of courses for a British organization that had become concerned about the somewhat lopsided behaviour of its most senior cohort. The top levels of this organization were populated by intellectually gifted people, mostly men, who had little idea about emotional intelligence or why it might matter. The organization felt that it needed to make a big cultural shift. The solution? Plonk these very senior people (fifteen at a time and for five days, no phones or emails allowed, no quitting) into a pleasant venue where their only task was to get on with each other. What invariably happened was a like a chamber-piece psychodrama since there was no escape. By the third day of every course, mayhem had broken out. Long-standing enemies vented their grudges, secrets were confessed, accusations hurled, there were tears, tantrums and threats, intense alliances and some love affairs. The masks slipped. It was impossible to prevent some aspect of the more vulnerable person becoming known, ideally to themselves, as well as to others. Our role was to keep all of this safe and to link it with what the organization needed.

Chevalier, an intriguing new Greek language film from Athina Rachel Tsangari, is in the long tradition of chamber-piece films, where you see what happens when there is no mechanism for keeping things safe, for instance Rope, Phone Booth, 12 Angry Men, Lord of the Flies, Moon – and Dogtooth, another unsettling Greek language film made by Tsingari’s friend and collaborator Yorgos Lanthinos.

Six middle aged men are on a comfortable yacht in the Aegean. It’s not the calm blue sea of the holiday websites but cool, grey and a little choppy. There are connections between them, some of which become clear, some remaining blurred. The yacht is owned by ‘The Doctor’, the oldest and apparently most powerful in the group. They have nothing to do but some sporadic fishing so they set up a game to decide ‘who is the best man in general’. The rules of this ‘game’ are never explained but each man has a little notebook into which his ratings of the others are silently entered. The tasks are wonderfully silly, for instance cleaning silver with toothpaste, assembling an IKEA bookcase, rating sleeping positions, snoring levels, skimming stones, dental hygiene, blood triglycerides and, naturally, penis size, all of these carried out with tremendous seriousness.

The veneer of courtesy is soon ripped away as the craziness of pointless bragging and unchecked male behaviour takes over.

Men, eh! Do they really get how strange they are? It would be easy for a woman director to mock these fragile egos but she does not. There are many laugh-out-loud moments, such as when the character who has been teased and who worries about his potency finally achieves a splendid erection and hammers on the others’ doors to come and admire it – but it’s late at night and they are all sound asleep. As the film goes on, the relentless competition reveals secret worries: Are my thighs too big? Does it matter that I’m losing my hair? What about my wobbling belly? Is it my fault that my wife hasn’t had a baby? Does she really love me?

My own prize for best performance goes to Makis Papadimitrou who brings beautifully calibrated childish humour and ill-founded hope to Dimitris, a woefully tubby idiot savant, still living with his mother, afraid of the dark, brought along by his resentful brother and not allowed to go into the water. His naïve inability to compete, except on his own limited terms, throws the absurdity of the rest into relief.

The cinematography combines bleached out colour with multiply-reflecting, cramped shots of the yacht interior, frequently giving us slices of the middle aged male body seen when the camera slyly peeps around corners or with bulkheads in the way.

Is it a satire on Greece and its dying economy? Possibly, as in an exquisite double bluff in the final reel, we see the ship’s crew drawn into the same daft competitiveness. I did find that the film lacked narrative drive: there is no big climax at the end, it all just drifts away. It is a film about men made by a woman and with a degree of merciless, bone-dry wit, with no visible female characters, but with no malice. And for certain it is a wholly understated and sublime comedy.

Thursday, 21 July 2016

A Tale of Two Weiners

Jenny gives Weiner 5 painful stars

Directors Elyse Steinberg and Josh Kriegman open their film with a quote from Marshall McLuhan: ‘The name of a man is a numbing blow from which he never recovers’. When your name is also one of many slang words for the male member, what are you to do? Perhaps you are already doomed.

The well-researched theory of nominative determinism seems to apply here – that we can be drawn inexorably to behaviours or professions that resemble our name. I once knew a surgeon called Mr Hammer, a haulier called Mr Carter and a doctor called Dr Docktor, and the former Lord Chief Justice of England and Wales was Judge Judge. More pertinent to this film, in 2014 a Donald Popadick of Toronto was arraigned on a charge of indecent exposure.

So the title of this documentary film is already a joke. Its subject is Anthony Weiner, but the film is actually just as much about his penis and his inability to resist giving it a starring role in his life.

Congressman Weiner was forced to resign his seat in 2011 because he was exposed (sorry but I find myself inexorably drawn to the puns) for sexting DC groupies. He apologized in the usual way for the ‘hurt’ he had caused his wife, Huma Abedin, a close aide to Hillary Clinton. Then a few years later he decided to run for Mayor of New York.

During the course of filming the documentary on his campaign, he is caught once more, sending pictures of his erect penis to a woman calling herself Sydney Leathers and having phone sex with her up to five times a day. Sydney has subsequently created a career for herself as a porn star but Anthony’s career has plummeted. He came bottom of the poll for Mayor and his subsequent career as a lobbyist/consultant seems to have been characterised by abrupt departures.

This film is painful to watch, painful in every way: painful to see the humiliation of his beautiful and gifted wife, painfully funny that a man caught in this way can worry more about his emerging bald spot than about his wife’s feelings, painful to see yet another example of the overwhelming narcissism of career politicians, painful to see a clever man sabotage himself so stupidly.

At one point we see a chat show journalist yell at him, ‘What’s wrong with you? What IS wrong with you?’ He can’t answer this, any more than he can answer the question put to him by the film-makers, ‘Why are you letting us film this?’ Maybe the answer is that his need to be in the limelight is overwhelming – we see him leaping about at Gay Pride, riding floats at carnivals, manically hugging strangers, losing his temper with hecklers, obsessively replaying his own interviews, even the ones where he comes off worst. During his sexting career he gave himself the name Carlos Danger. I had a sudden image of the toddler Anthony strutting about, as small boys sometimes do, with his little button penis hanging out, an aren’t-I-naughty expression on his face, looking for reactions, any reactions. How pleasing it can be to see shock, horror and amusement on the faces of the adults. Funny in a two year old, puzzling and silly for a man in his forties.

Weiner is a brilliant case study in hubris, in how our greatest strengths are virtually always the trigger to catastrophe when we overuse them. A gifted orator, a hard worker, a demanding boss, a fearless interrogator… all of these became disastrous handicaps for Anthony when they turned into a sense of entitlement, a reckless belief that he would not be caught when indulging in behaviour that he must have known to be morally dubious.

At the same time, part of him just doesn’t get it. As he says mournfully, nobody died; he didn’t have sexual relations with those women. He doesn’t even seem to notice the blank despair on his wife’s face. He can say the words about being responsible but they seem empty.

Above all this film is about the media and its rapacious need for extremes, for courting and creating celebrity and then glorying in its ruin. The film-makers admit that they themselves are part of it. But they must have been hugging their cameras at their luck. They couldn’t hold back any more than could the rest of the pack. And for us, the viewers of the debacle, we may be watching through our fingers, or in disbelief, or guiltily experiencing schadenfreude, but we are complicit too.

Friday, 1 July 2016

Norma and John and why they voted for Brexit

We don’t usually stray into politics at Angel & Elephant unless led there by a film or other cultural event, but these are unusual times, and Jenny has been moved to reflect on last week’s vote. 

Norma and John live in a small Norfolk village. They voted Leave without a moment’s hesitation. The only language spoken in their village is British English and every face is white. Some distance away, in the pleasant regional city of Norwich, the same is largely true although the university brings a smattering of foreigners, some with brown faces.

Norma and John are literal Baby Boomers since they were both born in 1946, the year after their dads returned from fighting in Africa and Europe. They benefitted from the massive British post war reforms to health and to secondary education. However, both failed the harsh sheep/goats process that was the Eleven Plus, the route into social mobility through a grammar school. Neither they nor their parents were troubled by this; it saved the money that expensive uniforms and games equipment would have cost. It spared them the unease of entering a world of middle class assumptions and posh people. It liberated them to leave school at fifteen to earn good money, Norma as a shop assistant in Norwich and John for a local farmer. They met at seventeen and an unexpected pregnancy meant early marriage because then it was unthinkable to seek an abortion or to be a single parent.

A small social housing estate had been built in their village and they were pleased to have a nice house with a proper bathroom and kitchen. Later, feeling prosperous in the Thatcher years, they exercised their right to buy and now they are mortgage free, still in the same house. They are close to their daughter who followed their pattern of early pregnancy and marriage and one of this daughter’s daughters has done the same. So they are now great grandparents.

When you talk to Norma and John they are angry and upset. They say things like ‘I want my country back’; ‘There are too many people here already; what’s going to happen to jobs for our kids and their kids?’ The fact is that they are right to be dismayed. John’s job vanished twenty five years ago when farming changed beyond recognition and hedgerows that had been there for a thousand years disappeared to make the giant fields that you now see everywhere in Norfolk. He got seasonal work in boatyards but found himself exhausted by its intensely physical nature. He tried setting up a handyman business but it never took off. Norma did part time bar shifts, but the pub closed twelve years ago. She worked as a carer for a few years until she damaged her back when turning an elderly client.

The truth is that Norma and John are poor. Yes they have an asset in their house but it is small and shabby and in any case this does not help with their bills. They need a car as the only public transport is a once a day bus. They have no savings to speak of and live off the state pension. They are worried about the future of their local hospital, the James Paget in Lowestoft. Both are overweight and have Type 2 diabetes. Norma has had a double mastectomy and John is on medication for depression as well as recovering from bowel surgery. Their youngest son, a late baby, escaped the Eleven Plus trap and benefitted from the introduction of comprehensive schooling. He is a well-paid PhD research chemist in the pharmaceutical industry and funds their car and holidays but he lives in Singapore.

Norma and John have always voted Tory but that is irrelevant, as is anything to do with the EU. Their vote for Leave was a cry of rage and disappointment. They believed the lies about money for the NHS. They half-thought that they could be invaded by a million Turks. It would be easy to say that as classic Left Behinds they are responsible for their own plight by failing to update their skills, broaden their perspectives or to consider getting out of a dying economy. But the thought has never crossed their minds. Rooted in their rural life, they are liked by their neighbours, most of their family live close by – why would they damage all of that?

I am connected to Norma and John though they are unaware of it. For three decades until 2011 I had a second home in a small Norfolk village. To people like them I was, for sure, an ‘Incomer’, a word often spoken in Norfolk with lurking resentment, people too smart and affluent for their own good, raising house prices, bringing fancy London ideas with them and, sometimes, though I hope this was never true of me, remaining aloof from the community. I, too, benefited from post-war social reform.

I also married young by today’s standards. The difference is that I grew up as an only child in an urban area with parents who were desperate for me to have the chances that they missed. I passed the Eleven Plus, thanks to their constant coaching and encouragement. It was taken for granted that they would make enormous financial sacrifices and that I would go to university, though no one in the family had ever done so. I entered the jobs market, a confident young graduate, at a time of full employment. Getting a job and a mortgage was easy. I have been able to live by my wits rather than by poorly paid, insecure manual labour. I have been lucky.

Now I, too, can experience the anguish and disappointment of being one of the Left Behinds, my ideas and deeply-held values rejected. It pains me grievously to know that Norma and John will suffer more than I will from Brexit. They are decent people. They have been forgotten, let down, fooled. No one was listening to them and maybe no one will now, but for sure they have had their moment. 

Monday, 9 May 2016

Michael Moore hits his target

Joe enjoys Where to Invade Next for its dark undercurrents as well as its sunny surface

In this rose-tinted travelogue, Michael Moore goes in search of ideas he can steal and take back home to America. He visits half a dozen European countries, plus Tunisia, intending “to pick the flowers, not the weeds”. I watched a special screening at the University of California, Santa Barbara. During the discussion afterwards, an angry walk-out by one member of the audience and some audible groaning from another suggested that, in spite of its sunny demeanour, this is a film capable of raising passions.

Moore starts with the observation that, since World War Two, America’s foreign adventures have been uniformly disastrous. Called in by the Joint Chiefs of Staff desperate for his advice, he sets off on a one-man mission to invade some countries and purloin their best policies for American use.

On his travels, he discovers practices that, from an American perspective, look hopelessly utopian. He meets an idyllically happy working class couple in Italy who enjoy 8 weeks paid holiday a year and leisurely 2-hour lunchbreaks at home. French primary school children gather round tables, family-style, to share tasty and nutritious meals. University education in Slovenia is free. In Portugal possession of drugs for personal use hasn’t been a crime for 15 years. Finnish prisoners are treated with kindness and respect. And in Sweden 21 years is the longest sentence even for mass murderers. All this enlightenment increases productivity, reduces recidivism and makes people happy.

Skilful cutting and an artful soundtrack, together with Moore’s act of naïve bemusement, made me laugh out loud at some of these revelations – at least half the intended effect. The other half, I assume, is to provoke outrage that the richest nation in the world treats its own people so badly in comparison.   

Just when a visit to a model pencil factory in Nuremberg made me want to protest that this is all very nice, but Europe too has had its dark side, Moore tells us that the idea he wants to take home from Germany is that nations should confront their past crimes. For America, that would mean actively remembering its history of genocide and slavery (a lesson Britain could learn too, incidentally, where Nazi Germany looms far larger on the typical school curriculum than the slave trade or colonialism).  
Where to Invade Next showtimes and tickets
In a final feminist turn, Tunisia is revealed as a country where women have overcome the resistance of a conservative Islamic administration to pass advanced equal rights laws, and Iceland’s female leaders are credited with rebuilding the economy from ruin after a world recession brought on by an excess of testosterone. 

After the UCSB screening, a student who identified herself as Swedish complained that the film whitewashed countries, including her own, where neo-fascism is on the rise and borders are even now being closed to refugees. A mild expression of sympathy for Europe’s predicament, from the sociology professor chairing the discussion, prompted the Swedish student’s friend (an Iranian, I learnt when I caught up with him in the foyer) to stage his sudden exit. The groaner, an American woman of working class origins and impeccably progressive credentials, confided in me that she was bothered by the anti-American tenor of the film and even more distressed at the patronising tone of the discussion afterwards, with its focus on “stupid Americans”. So in this small audience, Moore managed to alienate people from three different continents.

I can see how the film might be offensive to Americans resistant to the idea that other countries manage things better, though Bernie Sanders has won substantial support with this very message. I also know that Europe is no utopia. But I felt that the two students had missed the point. This isn’t really a film about Italy or Finland or Tunisia. We see people in foreign countries benefitting from humane approaches to employment and education and law enforcement and these sunny images evoke the shadow, which is Moore’s true subject. America occupies only a fraction of his time, but in this fresh context the footage of police violence and the brutalitizing of prison inmates has a huge impact. A combination of savage sentencing, profit-driven prisons and a war on drugs that targets black America, Moore argues, has created a new slave class out of the descendants of the old. Meanwhile ordinary Americans, holding down two or three jobs to make ends meet, have been induced to accept their exploited condition as inevitable.

The film reminds us that there are better and worse ways of doing things and that it’s worth pushing for the better options. Its optimistic message made me want to cheer. 

Wednesday, 4 May 2016

What's so hilarious about humiliation?

Jenny gives Florence Foster Jenkins a queasy 3 stars

Is there currently a more reliable director of expertly-told stories than Stephen Frears? If so I can’t think of one: The Queen, Philomena, The Program, all movies I have enjoyed even while thinking the first two somewhat sentimental. As a director he seems to like looking at the not-so-attractive lives of people who, for whatever reason, position themselves as celebrities. The scripts are invariably well written, the casting is always spot on, the acting convincing, the production design faultless, the resulting film entertaining.

Florence Foster Jenkins is the story of a wealthy woman who can’t sing yet who hires the Carnegie Hall in 1944 to give a recital. Her records, recklessly made because she believed so firmly in her own talent, became best sellers, but for all the wrong reasons. Her personal and business partner, a former actor, St. Clair Bayfield, had been able to keep the proper critics away up until that point through a mixture of persuasion, bribery and threat, but this became impossible with a public concert in such an enormous place. Professional critics demolished her performance and she died shortly afterwards.

Technically everything about this film is wonderful. Meryl Streep does one of her usual immaculate impersonations as Florence, including finely judged bad singing. The real surprise is Hugh Grant who is just perfect as her kind-of husband, showing us that he is certainly in it for the money, including the flat for which Florence pays and which houses his girlfriend, yet he also loves Florence deeply and tenderly. His graceful and expertly nuanced performance is the best thing he has done for years. Maybe it is true that he was born 50 years too late for the handsome Cary Grant-style British schmoozer he plays so well in this film; trust his twinkly charm folks, but not too much.

But I watched this film in dismay. It is billed as a ‘comedy drama’ and the actors have repeatedly described it in interviews as ‘hilarious’. But how, exactly is it ‘hilarious’? Is it hilarious to laugh at the allegedly comical delusions of a very rich woman who could afford to hire weasely singing coaches tell her she was brilliant but ‘it needs a little more work’, and who is then exposed to the terrible humiliation of an audience at the Carnegie Hall (The Hammersmith Apollo filling in perfectly) literally falling about laughing as she screeches her way through arias that are way beyond her ability?

Self-delusion is one of the essential themes of comedy. It’s why we laugh at Malvolio in Twelfth Night, it’s why David Brent was excruciatingly funny in The Office. It’s why Steve Coogan’s Alan Partridge is genuinely ‘hilarious’. These are ludicrous people who at some level know that who they are and who they purport to be are at odds.

What is wrong with this film is how clearly it shows that Florence Foster Jenkins does not know this. Her costumes are ridiculous and ugly. She is overweight. She is too old to prance about on a stage. She wears a wig to hide her baldness. She is a naïve, vulnerable woman, padded by money, damaged by poor health and by the sycophancy, cowardice and the well-meaning or corrupt care of those around her, who, for whatever reason, refuse to tell her the blunt truth: she can’t sing. Watching this film we are made complicit in this.

I did not like the moral dilemma this created for me. I did not find the film funny, though I did find it absorbing. Her death is horrible. This was a real woman who really did die in these circumstances. I heard no laughter around me in the Islington Vue. People stayed quietly to the end, watching the credits and then filed out silently. There was no feel-good chattery buzz or smiling. I left along with everyone else and plodded home. I had watched a tragedy not a comedy. I felt manipulated: not a good experience.

Wednesday, 20 April 2016

Plodding towards infinity

Jenny gives Matt Brown’s Ramanujan biopic 2 stars

The Man Who Knew Infinity is in the tortured genius genre, so we already know that it can’t possibly end happily. A poor young man from Madras, Srinivasa Ramanujan, a self-taught mathematical prodigy played charmingly by Dev Patel, eventually achieves some success at a Cambridge college after multiple barriers which include racism, snobbery and ill health.

Only ten minutes into this film I had decided that I was watching a Sunday evening TV idea which had grown too big for its sprockets. Was it the soppy version of India, all sitars and flower garlands? Was it the Bollywood casting of the pretty little wife who really just had to do a lot of soulful eye-rolling and staring into the horizon? Was it the cheerfully coloured ‘poverty’? 

As the film trudged along, I found concentration difficult, especially as further on into Row D at the Everyman there was a party of naughty ladies who were downing copious quantities of wine, chatting and consulting their phones. The wine had a predictable effect on their bladders so they needed to leave their seats quite a lot. Joe charitably thought that they might be Dev Patel groupies and that the phones were for sharing pictures of their beloved. But maybe they had just made a mistake about the film they thought they were going to see on a girlie night out. Pure Mathematics didn’t seem to hold their interest.

Then I found that certain intrusive, nit-picky questions began to preoccupy me. If Ramanujan was so poor, who paid for his splendidly tailored suits, beautiful shirts and nice cashmere cardis? After a 6,000 mile journey to England, how come his one cream suit was still in tip top condition? These important wardrobe questions were never answered. Why was the weather so peculiar? Even in Cambridge I don’t think the rain falls on just one side of an umbrella, and when you cross one of those handsome quads I doubt that the conversation booms as it did in this film or that the light glows quite so orangely on people’s faces for so much of the time. Do people with TB really have eyes that look like something out of a cheaply-made horror film?

Then there is the problem of how you explain mathematical genius when virtually no one in the audience is likely to understand a word of it. Answer: you show a lot of chalkboard or notebook workings but at such speed that we know we don’t need to bother to read them, and you have a handy Irish servant (a Bedder as I believe they are known) who doesn’t know any more maths than we do, so that Jeremy Irons, playing the Cambridge professor, GH Hardy, can do some helpful mansplaining (or mathsplaining, as Joe suggested it might be called).

Meantime, the ladies had sent out for another bottle, the wine glasses were glinting from the light on their phones and their faces seemed a little flushed.  

The biopic is a difficult act to pull off. Almost invariably it presents a one-dimensional, sentimentalised version of the person’s ‘real’ life. Pedants spring up to point out all the many factual mistakes and the director indignantly defends the film as fiction anyway. Many tortured geniuses have had a number of films made about their lives – for instance Vincent Van Gogh, Frida Kalho, Howard Hughes – but can anyone remember these films now or distinguish them from each other?

The actual Ramanujan married his wife when she was ten and left her when she was fifteen. He was not tall, rangy and handsome like Dev Patel but a rather chubby plain-looking fellow. His was undoubtedly a life cut tragically short, but somehow by the time we got to that part I had wholly lost interest and I was a bit preoccupied by the utterly trivial question of how soon we could get to the restaurant and order our own bottle.

Joe's footnote

I think playwrights have had better luck with this kind of material, Jenny, partly because subsidised theatre is not required to please a mass popcorn-eating audience (nor a wine-guzzling, selfie-tweeting one), but also because the stage is a symbolic medium that lends itself more readily to the exploration of ideas.

Michael Frayn's Copenhagen (1998) didn’t depend on leaden mathsplaining to present Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle but dramatized it through a series of conflicting narratives. In Arcadia (1993) Tom Stoppard created the poignant fiction of a nineteenth century teenage genius who grasps the concept of chaos theory, but dies, leaving her grieving tutor to waste a lifetime failing to bring her ideas to fruition, and in this way communicates one of the essential features of this branch of mathematics – that it depends on repeated iterations, each one simple in itself, but on a scale that only a computer can manage.  

In defence of Matt Brown’s film, at least some brief explanation is offered of the kind of problem Ramanujan was working on, even if the device is rather creaky. As far as I remember, A Beautiful Mind, starring the beefy Russell Crowe, quickly abandoned any attempt at explaining game theory in favour of more muscular activities such as heaving desks from first floor windows.

I enjoyed The Man Who Knew Infinity more than you, Jenny, and more than our neighbours, who seemed strangely indifferent to the craggy charms of Trinity College quad and the even craggier charms of Jeremy Irons. I was moved by Hardy’s attachment to his fellow mathematician Littlewood, and by his growing understanding of the profundity of his Indian protégé’s genius. But for a mind-expanding treatment of Ramanujan’s life, A Disappearing Number (2007) was vastly more successful. Devised by Théâtre de Complicité and directed and conceived by Simon McBurney, it included live percussion, suggestive of the numerical sequences that absorbed Ramanujan, and brought abstract ideas impressionistically alive through dance and dramatic action.  

Monday, 18 April 2016

We bomb because we care

Joe questions the premise of Eye in the Sky

If you like the kind of thriller where stuff gets blown up and no one has time to count the bodies, you’ll be disappointed with Eye in the Sky. Writer Guy Hibbert and director Gavin Hood make us wait for most of the film while an expanding circle of military and political figures agonise over whether to authorise a single precision drone strike and how to minimise the human cost. The result is more like a seminar in moral philosophy than an updated Airforce One.

The set-up is designed to present an excruciatingly balanced ethical conundrum. In response to information that senior figures in the East African terrorist group Al-Shabaab will be gathering in Nairobi, Colonel Katherine Powell (Helen Mirren) is directing an operation by Kenyan ground troops to pick them up. When the terrorist meeting is moved to a house inside a camp controlled by extremists, a no-go area for the military, Powell sees no alternative to a drone strike.

Overseeing this operation from Whitehall is Powell’s commanding officer, Lieutenant General Frank Benson (Alan Rickman), the British Attorney General, and a couple of government ministers. From a US air force base outside Las Vegas, two young American drone pilots operate the “eye in the sky” of the film’s title and wait for instructions.

Meanwhile the stakes are rising on both sides of the question. It turns out Powell has in her sights not only three “high-value targets”, identified as numbers 2, 3 and 5 on the US President’s East Africa kill list, but also two suicide bombers who are even now suiting up to go out and create carnage in some public place at an estimated cost of 80 lives. Who could resist zapping the lot of them in one go? Random deaths will be limited to a small area around the house. But a child, who has previously been observed playing safely in her own back yard, sets up a stall in the street selling bread. For all those watching the live footage this girl’s fate becomes the central question. Can they strike without killing or injuring her? Should they strike anyway?
Image result for the eye in the sky
At the level of human drama, the film is absorbing. But I found myself increasingly distracted by a feeling that the debate was skewed. In their charismatic performances, Mirren and Rickman seem to represent the military at its most admirable, doing what has to be done to keep us safe. The US politicians, who appear only briefly, are cartoonishly gung-ho. It’s left to the British politicians, agonising over biscuits and coffee in their plush Whitehall office, to consider the case against action. But they’re a weaselly bunch, worrying how they’ll explain themselves on the Today Programme if it all goes wrong and the footage is leaked to you tube. Rickman, required to seek ever higher clearance, gives a characteristic performance of deadpan disdain (sadly his last). This raised uneasy chuckles from the elderly matinee audience in the Clapham Picturehouse. I imagine less thoughtful audiences might howl with derisive laughter at the cowardly buck-passing. But this isn’t an episode of The Thick of it: these politicians are clearly sweating their way through a dilemma that has a moral dimension for them as well as a political one.

It occurred to me only afterwards that the way the film maintains the illusion of balance is by piling up the rational case in favour of the drone strike and the emotional case against.

The argument for saving the child, played enchantingly by Aisha Takow, is given emotional weight for the audience who get to know her at ground level. We learn that her father does nothing more dangerous for a living than mending bicycles, that her mother bakes the bread that she sells in the market, and that they are explicitly not “fanatics”, the term her father uses for their neighbours. In the privacy of the home, she studies maths and in the yard she plays charmingly with a hula hoop, though her hula-hooping, like her schoolbooks, must be hidden from visitors. All of which makes her, and her parents, effortlessly appealing to a Western audience, while adding nothing to the moral case for protecting her. 

Rickman’s character, resistant to such sentimental concerns, takes the pragmatic view: “Save her and risk killing 80 others.” The nearest thing we get to an answer comes from one of the British politicians: “If Al-Shabaab kills 80 people, we win the propaganda war. If we kill one child, they do.” This is a powerful argument fatally weakened by its acceptance of the General’s assumption that drone strikes save lies – calculably and immediately. No one in the film questions this, nor the long-term strategy of assassinating replaceable individuals while alienating civilian populations who must live under the constant threat of random aerial attack. 
It’s a junior minister, played engagingly by Monica Dolan, who offers the most consistent objection on moral grounds, but the script gives her nothing to say in response to Rickman’s sonorous last words: “Never tell a soldier that he does not know the cost of war”. This final stand-off between the agitated, damp-eyed civilian woman and the sorrowfully determined General symbolises the heart-versus-head premise on which the film is constructed.

Persuasively written, superbly acted, convincing in its procedural details, Eye in the Sky left me feeling emotional manipulated and intellectually bamboozled. The argument for risking the child’s life is unrealistically contrived. The give-away is the addition of the suicide bombers and the confident estimate of 80 imminent deaths. In the war we are conducting with daily drone strikes in many countries, how often, I wonder, does a drone pilot have in his sights a suicide bomber on the point of detonating his vest? We’ve become used to the justification for torture that was regularly represented in Fox’s long-running series, 24. Wouldn’t you torture someone if he could direct you to a bomb in time for you to defuse it? This film seems to offer an equivalent defence of drone strikes.

In the desperate circumstance presented in this story, a little corruption seems justified. When Mirren’s character, having struggled conscientiously throughout to do what’s best, makes the first move towards a cover-up, I felt invited to consider the lonely burden of responsibility carried by those charged with protecting us, because, as another fictional colonel once famously remarked, we can’t handle the truth. Sadly there’s no one in this film with the eloquence or the stature to challenge that dangerous falsehood.  

And after the General has had his say and the verbal debate is over, it’s only the closing wordless sequences, in a hospital in Nairobi and on an Air Force base in Nevada, that suggest the devastating cost of such actions – to the innocent victims, of course, and to the anti-terrorist cause, but also, less obviously, to those who fire the missiles in our name from a distance that keeps them physically safe but cannot protect them from the emotional and moral cost of what they are required to do.