“Eye In The Sky”

“Eye In The Sky” is a thought-provoking, and intensely cerebral and affecting film about the ethics and personal implications of drone warfare. South African Gavin Hood directs and plays a minor part (Colonel Ed Walsh) in British screenwriter Guy Hibbert’s anti-terrorism genre-piece.

For those who think that drone warfare is the least of all evils because the targets are known and the collateral damage can be effectively surmised, prepare yourself. There are no easy answers. For those who liken the unmanned kills to devil-may-care video gaming, be ready to have this argument squelched. Public transparency is the biggest theme here, right after the moral debate of what is ethical versus what is effective.

Helen Mirren plays the narrowly-focused, get-the job- done Colonel Katherine Powell. Her name  evokes “pow” and “too much power” at the same time. Much like this film, the viewer is left to decide how heinous her data machinations are. Is she practical, a decision maker par excellence or a believer who will cancel every check set in place to reach her goal. Think of the German car maker overriding environmental regulations to better profits, but on a life and death scale. The pressure she puts on her underlings is one of the most frightful scenes in this film. Mirren’s face never changes from its single-purposed rigidity. Her “Do you understand me? ”  is rife with one used to ordering the world. Aeschylus’ moral statement, “In war, truth is the first casualty.” could be this film’s thematic statement.

The settings are beautifully handled in “Eye In The Sky”, and we are made aware of the war on terror’ s international complexity in juxtaposition with the normality of daily life. In Nairobi, Kenya, a father fashions a hoopla hoop for his daughter; in Surrey, England, a grandfather purchases the wrong babydoll; in Los Vegas,Nevada, the lives of two recruits will change forever. Knowing that they have the right to ask for stats on collateral damage was new to me. And what does this say about excuses like ” I was just following orders.” ?

Aaron Paul and Phoebe Fox play these recruits, Steve and Carrie. Their moist eyes and their cascade of tears as they rain “hell fire” completes the code-named “Egret” mission. They are psychologically scarred for life. Who would not be when an innocent young girl is killed as collateral damage !  What is killing number four and number five on the world’s “most wanted list” worth?  “Eye In The Sky” doesn’t tell us any more than the satellite feed.

The young victim ‘s father has earlier told her, “These people are fanatics; Don’t play in front of them.” He is speaking of Somali terrorists, yet all the briefing-room image analyses, legal clearances, and ultimate strike proves even more dire in eliminating her. Does drone warfare do more harm than good may be the utimate question.  “Do we have permission to proceed ?” and “Has there ever been a drone attack on a friendly country when we are not at war ?” are questions for the Prime Minister. There is lots at stake, and this film’s tension is high.

Enjoy the irony of a dead battery on the sophisticated beetle drone, the food -poison -suffering of a Head of State, and the problem-solving of a Kenyan operative. You won’t enjoy how easily the U.S. Attorney General sacrifices an American citizen’s life. Wild West culpability is hinted at. No moral dilemma here.

My favorite lines: “The beetle sees lots of people we don’t like” and “laws are to protect you, not to get in your way”, “Can someone else buy the bread?”, ” Revolutions are fueled by U-tube” ,and finally, “Never tell a soldier that he does not know the cost of war.” See to enjoy a fine script.

 

 

 

 

 

“Trumbo”

Talented writers, liberal politics, power equalized and a family that adjusts to circumstances and stays united…what is not to like! Certainly,it is not Bryan Cranston or Diane Lane whose chemistry and depth of character have us wishing to know more about James Dalton Trumbo and Cleo,his loving and insightful and wise wife. Maybe the script is a tad too forgiving of gossip nickenpoop Hedda Hopper and spineless Edgar G. Robinson.  Hopper seems to want to hurt people just because she can,and Helen Mirren as Hedda does a grand job all be-hatted and cruel. Edgar G. too easily can rationalize his efforts to avoid hard sacrifice and move any way the wind blows.

The era is the fifties,again, with lots of analogies to today. McCarthyism is in full swing. Many Americans feel that “our way of life” is being  threatened by communism. Fear of loss and easy patriotism are taking hold. Hollywood,like America, is divided. Actual footage from the 1952 Congressional testimonies of The House of UnAmerican Activities Committee shows “The Duke” (that is John Wayne) , Robert Taylor and Ronald Reagan on the conservative wing and Kirk Douglas, Lucille Ball and Gregory Peck on the liberal .

Trumbo is called a ” swimming pool socialist” .  He is maligned as a man who talks like a radical and lives like a rich man. Yet, we see the star of “Breaking Bad” serving a jail  term for contempt of court as he states that criminalizing thought has never been the Ametican way. As a registered Communist, Trumbo says that someone will have to “surgically remove his conscience” to play by these House committee’s rules.

On screen, Director Jay Roach balances Trumbo’s personal and professional life beautifully. One of my favorite scenes has his young daughter, here played by Madison Wolfe, being led  on her pony by her father. She has seen a stranger throw a Coke in her Daddy’s face and call him “Traitor”. She sweetly asks if she is a Communist,too. Cranston seems to delight in asking what she would do if a child at school had forgotten lunch and she had a ham and cheese sandwich. Would she charge money, heap on interest, lecture him on being  more responsible etc..?  When Niki says that she would share, Trumbo calls het ” You little Commie”. It is a delightful, idealistic moment. Likewise, before he is taken to prison in Ashland, Kentucky, he gives his son Chris a job: “Your mother needs to laugh at least once a day”. We see Chris succeeding in a few attempts! The humor of Trumbo softens the depressing aspects of what was done to these families. When he returns to their California home,which must now be sold,he looks at his maturing children and screams,”I’m being attacked by giants!” The audience wishes to embrace him,too.

Diane Lane is no less fun to watch her at her craft. She juggles,parents,loves, sacrifices and fights at her family’s side. I have loved her work since she was a child herself. Michael Stulhbarg,who was great in “Steve Jobs” is just as memorable as Edward G. Robinson. He knows that banks don’t fund “enemies of the state” and he is not willing to sell another Matisse to live. It is hard to identify with his pain as a “snitch”. Trumbo’s asides are always humorous. “He is trying to sell his soul,but he can’t find it”. When John Wayne (played with perfect -speech -patterned voice by David James Elliott ) testifies  before the Congressional committee, Trumbo’s friend bemoans that “The Duke” is good. Trumbo retort is “Yeah, he is not acting!” The banter keeps their spirits up. McCarthyites are ” Nazis- too cheap to buy the uniforms”. Joe McCarthy is seen saying that “one Communist on the faculty is one Communist too many”.

Blacklisted writers unite under Trumbo’s lead. The Hollywood Ten, those given prison terms, make a living on their release by writing B- scripts for Frank King ( John Goodman)~scripts with titles like “The Alien and the Farmgirl”. The irony is  Trumbo ‘s win of two Oscars for screenplays under  the bogus author name of Robert Rich. “Roman Holiday” (1953) and “The Brave One” (1956) were the award winners, but “Spartacus” and “Exodus” were Trumbo’s ,too.

Enjoy the trivia history of President JFK crossing the picket line to see “Spartacus” and in effect signifying that “blacklisting” was over.  Enjoy the brilliant Otto Preminger rankling with Trumbo. And finally, see one of the best frames of the year when film credits are reflected in the eyeglass lens of a tearful artist, who is so well lauded in the making of this film. Finally, enjoy the Jazz lyrics of “ain’t nobodies business if I do”.

“Woman In Gold”

Helen Mirren does a mean glance and a meaner stare. Both show up many times in the much-advertised “Woman In Gold”. When her young attorney,the son of a friend exclaimed that an event happened a half century ago,she eyes him incredulously and questions, “You think that is a long time?” We are drawn in with her demeanor and her carriage of a life having been lived. The remainder of the film bravely intertwines her past with the future.

This is a story of survivor’s guilt,art and music’s evocations,and Austria’s soul. Based on the true story of Maria Altmann, niece of Adele Bloch-Bauer the subject of Klimt’s portrait “Lady In Gold”, and of her dogged attorney ,  E. Randolph Schoenberg ( grandson of the Vienese composer, Arnold Schoenberg), who sacrificed family and job to pay homage to his ancestry.The past asking sacrifice of the present is a central theme.

Reasons to see this film besides learning about art restitution laws and adding to the genre of “less we forget” pieces would be the cast. Ryan Reynolds is so believable as he passionately prepares and delivers his Supreme Court remarks:” She came to America for peace. Let us give her justice,too.” We root for this man who began for money and finished for heart and justice. The “can of worms” imagery will delight any litigator, by the way. Katie Holmes is sweet, supportive and savvy.Helen Mirren funny and heartrendingly responsible. Her “I left them there” will bring tears to your eyes.

The music and lyrics “Mary, don’t you weep no more”  is just perfect as Maria faces her ghosts. The screenplay written by Alexi Kaye Campbell  is rife with understatement. Mirren delivers “The postcard doesn’t do her justice” and “I wish they would have accepted him (Hitler) to the art academy” with aplomb. Explaining the stacks of boxes in one room after her sister Louisa’s death, Mirren smiles and says “my sister moved in with me when she died.”

Gustav Klimt’s portrait of Adele introduces the film. We watch him as he prepares a section of the gold leaf to embellish his canvas.I thought this was an ingenious way to showcase the care and preparation required to produce this masterwork. Later, I considered the attorney’s verbal preparation and brief a masterwork,too. Back and forth, our understanding comes from Maria’s memories: her wedding, her aunt’s tutelage, and the most realistic foot chase scene as Nazi police try to stop Maria and her husband from fleeing Vienna.

The scenes of 1940 Vienna are extreme. Maria’s father’s cello playing,her husband’s operatic serenade, and then the humiliation of Jews made to scrub the pavement with acid, and the jack-booting Nazi parades. After 1998, a different kind of patriotism is called for, and the investigative reporter who aids their cause in Austria tries to make up for the sins of his Nazi father and his Fatherland. Again,the past is asking for something of the present lest we forget. See this film directed by Simon Curtis  and remember anew.