By now everyone knows who Helen Mirren is. She’s won all the awards, she’s convincing as a cop or a queen, and she’s always been hot. Her exotic roots – Russian nobility and Romani on one side, solid English working class on the other – produced a presence with great range that sticks to the emotional ribs, reliably excellent.
Over time Mirren has achieved an eminence that allows her great freedom, and she pretty much owns Eye in the Sky, a thriller driven by several potent and omnipresent realities: armed drones, establishment decision-makers stepping on themselves, and the 21st century power woman. That’s Mirren as Col. Katherine Powell, driven by the death of a colleague murdered by a terrorist group.
Her counterpoint is a room full of those decision-makers, including at least one lawyer and a cabinet minister. They debate and dither while Mirren/Powell manipulates, and the camera darts around the globe, Nairobi to Nevada to Pearl Harbor to London. Under director Gavin Hood it becomes a frenzied dystopian arrhythmic mental chase. Everyone is focused on what’s happening inside a suicide-bomber house as Powell grinds forward and the hesitant senior deciders weigh the political risk in their big rich room full of power.
It’s a simple decision and it needs to be quick: so far Powell has been an observe/capture mission. Under extreme time pressure and imminent danger of multiple same-day suicide bombings, does it become a strike-and-kill? The eye in the sky is an armed drone ready to strike, and collateral damage becomes a critical issue, embodied in a child who will be injured or die in a strike. Like the film’s tempo, this is cranked up to overkill, but it opens space for Somali actor Barkhad Abdi (of Captain Phillips), whose humane bearing and sensibility reveal the limitations of the robotic acting that the film’s tempo forces on the other actors. Abdi takes time to be subtle, the film breathes deeper, and his interlude with the child is a relief, humanizing the film and easing the pressure with his slower, stronger personal rhythm. Where Powell become her mission, he does not.
Powell is not overly concerned with the child, but very concerned with those suicide bombers arming up in a back room of the house, which is already under limited interior surveillance. This surveillance evolves and becomes near-total, a little nightmare world, all cameras – tiny bird and insect observation-drones that extend the paranoia. There is no privacy or escape for the zealots in the house, or for anyone reporting to Powell, and she does quietly brutal things to her assistants to move things toward a strike. When she bullies a black subordinate into giving her false collateral damage numbers that will doom the child, she is logic incarnate.
Where the senior people in the room are divided and hesitant, Powell is steady and unflinching, businesslike and persistent – a shrewd colonel who bends rules to overcome a more human general. Mirren can be charming and sexy at seventy, but in this film she’s a bitch on wheels. Her style and purpose are thought-provoking because nonpolitical, and distinctly not a product of what used to be called Women’s Lib, lacking its concern with ethics and correctness. Col. Powell’s professionalism is not especially gender-specific and has no sugar coating – more Margaret Thatcher than Hillary Clinton.
I was reminded of Joby Warrick’s current books on the near east and ISIS, which present us with something we don’t want to know – a third world view of drones, hovering quietly, faintly audible, always spying, waiting for orders to strike. But where Warrick’s knowledge and humanity are deep, Eye in the Sky is often strident, driven by the director’s urgent tempo. It makes clear how technology and push-button warfare typify our approach to diplomatic problems, and how that has made us hated in those countries where we go with the military option – most often the convenient and inexpensive drone.
Where does the unsentimental businesslike Col Powell come from? Mirren isn’t making it up as she goes along. Rather she’s the calm deliberate embodiment of an idea, that has nothing to do with Gloria Steinem et al. Before that wave was a very influential post-WW2 thinker and widely read novelist whose approach had more in common with Kissinger: Ayn Rand. Thatcher was the shiny tip of the free enterprise iceberg, but the hardened thinking that frees Col. Powell from humane concerns is pure Rand.
Ayn Rand was a White Russian escapee from communism, a prominent and persuasive best-selling author, much in favor of untrammeled capitalism. She was a bold if simplistic thinker who thought of altruism as a mistake and a weakness. A social Darwinist of great energy, prescribed amphetamines by her doctor for several critical creative years, Rand rolled hard and fast, gathering a clique of intelligent followers around her, directing their thinking and lives by the force of her personality. The young Alan Greenspan, her lover for a considerable period, was her most illustrious graduate, but she influenced many bright and innocent younger followers in her circle. Millions of readers likewise, many of them everyday people, educated middle-class commuters on trains, along with less educated ones on subways. Over the years endless numbers of successful people have credited Rand for freeing them of hesitation and doubt. Born a Jew, Rand was an avowed atheist for whom Judeo-Christian thinking and conventions were a waste of time and mind, and a thoughtful humane Christian like Jimmy Carter would be beside the point. Reagan was post-Rand, a man for whom Onward Christian Soldiers would be a theme – the new post-Rand Christian, for whom profit, power and God got along well.
I didn’t picture Mirren’s Col. Powell thinking much about God any more than did Rand. No time for it – this is a film about time constraints, a point rammed into every orifice by the directing. Powell becomes a mission creature, there to do a job, not to be diverted. None of the virtuous liberal PC/NGO thinking that persisted in “Women’s Lib” is present in her, but Rand’s hard-nose businesslike drive is of her essence. If director Hood had put more faith in Mirren and less in the speed-and-tension style this would be a deeper and less obvious film but Mirren is a master, and any performance is worth watching.