Breaking Bad star Aaron Paul’s movie career goes on hold today, as his new series The Path, which he also produces, premiers on Hulu. For anyone wondering why such a charismatic, talented and popular actor has been pushed back to the small screen in three short years, the answer is his only starring roles have been Need for Speed and his new modern warfare dud, Eye in the Sky.
Paul plays Steve Watts, an Air Force pilot assigned to handle the unmanned aerial vehicle watching over an operation to capture two of the FBI’s most wanted, helmed by British intelligence officer Katherine Powell (Helen Mirren). The objective goes from capture to kill when on-the-ground surveillance discovers two suicide bombers suiting up. Powell and overseeing officer Frank Benson (Alan Rickman) want Watts to execute the terrorists with the UAV’s missiles before they can leave the compound, but there’s a little girl in the blast radius. Powell and Benson fight Watts over the ethical implications of killing her to save countless others.
For about five minutes. Most of the movie is them jumping through hoops to get legal clearance from government officials played by far lesser actors.
Eye in the Sky covers massively important subject matter. Collateral damage is the central issue in the War on Terror because that’s the ethical barrier between the U.S. military and its amorphous foe. ISIS and the Taliban and other guerilla terrorist groups are, for the most part, united by a twisted religious worldview that holds indiscriminate destruction as the path to victory and even a victory in and of itself, so instead of attacking military targets, they attack towers or subways or airports, killing hundreds and sometimes thousands of non-combatants at a time. Drones have become a primary tool in this war for both surveillance and assassination, and they’re problematic because they can cause a ton of collateral damage themselves. If this collateral damage becomes rationalized and acceptable, that’s the point at which the country becomes the evil it set out to destroy. So the question of whether to spare one innocent life but potentially jeopardize hundreds of others is a valid one — unless we take a stance of zero acceptable loss, we don’t know that we’re any better than the terrorists — and an extremely important one, given that these decisions are faced every day right now. Further complicating factors include the idea that, if one of the U.S.’ literal reign-down-the-wrath-of-God-from-the-sky machines accidentally kills someone who doesn’t deserve it, it could push that person’s family toward radicalization and create another terrorist and lead to another mass killing down the road. Also, the post-Vietnam war media comes into play — a big reason drones are the preferred tool despite their imperfections are that their use prevents dead soldiers from headlining the nightly news, but adds the possibility of dead civilians taking their place. As British Attorney General George Matherson (Richard McCabe) laments in the trailer, “If they kill 80 people, we win the propaganda war. If we kill one child, they do.”
This movie takes its heart-wrenchingly plausible premise and all this real-world context and finds possibly the only way to make it boring. Even at a scant 102 minutes, Eye in the Sky feels eternal. It takes at least half an hour to get to the operation, and then 10 more minutes explaining the problem.
In addition to the story taking forever to set up due to its poor structure, once it is set up, it turns out to be a poor story. This movie was sold as a time-sensitive cage match between the pragmatism of killing a child to save countless others and the idealism of a zero collateral damage philosophy with a titan of theater arguing each side. Instead, the main conflict is determining how many government officials need to give express permission for a particular strike and the hijinks involved in trying to get in touch with them in time. Foreign Secretary James Willett’s (Iain Glen) diarrhea is an actual plot point in this movie.
That’s more defensible than it sounds — they’re trying to make a high-minded statement about how these decisions are handed down by people who don’t have any expertise in this area and other things on their mind — but it’s also typical of this movie’s fire-and-brimstone yet shallow morality. Everyone states their conflicting positions as strongly as possible, but there’s no actual debate. No opinions are ever explored in any depth, no one tries to change anyone else’s mind. As focused as the movie becomes on its ethical issues, it never actually bares them out.
By moving away from its top-billed characters and asking more of its day players, Eye in the Sky commits its greatest sin, completely wasting a cast full of all-time greats. When you’re blessed with Aaron Paul, Helen Mirren and Alan Rickman — in his last live-action role before his death, no less — you don’t continually cut to other characters. You trim it down, if possible. If something like The Hateful Eight started with this cast, you do some re-writes and bring it down to The Hateful Three. Paul gets about five minutes of screentime. Rickman gets 10 at best. Even without the waste of top-end talent, the movie is a mess of characters — the U.S. Secretary of State Ken Stanitzke (Michael O’Keefe) gets a segment devoted to him similar to the Foreign Secretary’s diarrhea subplot, and there’s another Air Force officer, Carrie Gershon (Phoebe Fox), who seems to be an attempt at a romantic interest for Watts that was simply never fleshed out.
Eye in the Sky is not the movie it sells itself as. It’s boring, poorly paced, poorly structured and doesn’t confront any of the ethical questions its plot begs. Even a lead cast for the ages can’t save it since they don’t get any real screentime.
Leopold Knopp is a formerly professional film critic, licensed massage therapist and journalism student at the University of North Texas. Coddling is an act of great disrespect — demand harsh truths. I’ve had a change of heart in regard to reader input. It is now welcomed and encouraged. Like Reel Entropy on Facebook, follow it on Twitter @reelentropy, and shoot questions to reelentropy@.