Posts Tagged ‘Barkhad Abdi’

When an issue becomes grist to the mill of popcorn action movies, you know it’s achieved a certain critical mass when it comes to public awareness. So when you consider that the director of the remake of Robocop announced the film was ‘actually’ about the use of drones in combat situations, the last Gerard Butler action movie was bookended by a couple of drone bombings, the signs are clear – this topic is up for grabs as far as film makers are concerned. (You can perhaps discern this from the way that Robocop attempted to discuss the ethical implications – in an admittedly cackhanded sort of way – while London Has Fallen just used it in a specious and un-thought-through attempt to give the film verisimilitude and sophistication.)

For me, the whole issue of drone strikes, drone bombings, call it what you will – it’s one of those things that happens, and which is clearly significant in the world, but which I have no personal influence over whatsoever. As a result I sometimes feel as though I’ve recused myself from having to have an opinion about it. One almost gets the sense that this is an attitude many governments would like to foster. Hoping to achieve exactly the opposite effect is Gavin Hood’s Eye in the Sky.


The use of drone strikes to eliminate terrorist suspects is an enormously big and complex issue, which Eye in the Sky humanises by starting with one very simple situation and letting the audience wonder what they would do if they had their finger on the trigger, figuratively speaking: a mixed group of American, British, and Kenyan terrorists are meeting in a house on the outskirts of Nairobi. They are being monitored by a mixture of British and American military figures, a group of UK politicians, courtesy of a Kenyan intelligence operative in the vicinity. It suddenly becomes apparent that the group are in the final stages of preparing for a suicide bombing attack. The house is in a neighbourhood controlled by the radical Al-Shabab militia, making the use of conventional forces impossible. The only way to stop the attack is to blow up the house using a drone – but a young girl is sitting directly outside it, selling bread, and she will most likely be killed in the blast. What would you do?

Helen Mirren plays the officer in operational command of the mission, and Alan Rickman is her superior, liaising with a group of government ministers overseeing the operation (Jeremy Northam is one of them). Aaron Paul and Phoebe Fox are the operators of the drone, and the ones who will actually have to pull the trigger. Barkhad Abdi is the Kenya intelligence agent on the scene. One of the distinctive features of Eye in the Sky is that most of these people don’t share any screen time together, their various interactions taking place entirely via electronic media – Mirren is in a bunker somewhere, Rickman is in Whitehall, Paul and Fox are in a US airbase near Las Vegas, Abdi is in Nairobi. The interconnectedness of the modern world is one of the themes of the film.

Most of the time this is a positive thing, as I’m sure most of us would agree, but it also means that a decision that once upon a time would have been left to soldiers on the scene is now open to scrutiny by higher-ups and politicians, as happens here. The situation in this film is perhaps a little contrived to achieve maximum complexity – there’s a change of mission objective, plus the fact that American citizens are targets, and the complication that it’s technically a drone strike against a friendly country – but not excessively so, and the tense wrangling between the various involved parties that ensues is utterly plausible and gripping. (Even if real-world politicians don’t worry about and discuss issues in quite this way, you would still like to believe that they do.)

The issues involved are of several different kinds – legal, political, and ultimately moral. But even then it’s not as clean-cut as that sounds – the decision as to whether a strike is legal is made by a politician, after all, while even ethical concerns seem to be getting warped by other considerations, such as whether a successful suicide bombing or excessive collateral damage from a drone strike would have the greater impact as a piece of negative publicity. Time and again the film returns to the fact that everyone, except those actually at risk of bodily harm in Kenya, is concerned about covering their own backside – the military need to be sure they are not legally culpable for any wrongdoing, the politicians need to ensure they are authorised by their superiors, and so on. (Here again the modern world intrudes – characters worry aloud about what will happen if footage from the drone ends up on YouTube, and so on.)

This may make it sound like the film is quite talky, and to some extent that’s true, but it never feels less than grounded and real. Partly this is because of the way Hood employs little details to sell the story to the audience – the fact the little girl’s parents have no ties to Al-Shabab and are surreptitiously giving her an education, the way that the drone operators have no idea about the arguments over how to proceed going on above their heads, and many others.

At one point it looks like this is going to be a film about how brave and dedicated soldiers are let down by self-serving political types – lions led by donkeys, again – but once more the film does not take the easy route – there’s a very uncomfortable scene in which Mirren basically bullies one of her own men (he is black, with an Arabic surname, and surely neither of these things is accidental) into manipulating his calculations of collateral damage down to an acceptably low percentage. Is she crossing the line, or simply doing what’s necessary to save dozens of lives? The film permits us to make up our own minds.

I personally did not feel this was a film with an axe to grind as to whether drone bombings are justified or not, but I can imagine how some people might find it a bit too sympathetic to the military-political establishment, who are presented as flawed but human. The film seems to me to simply conclude that this is a complex, complex issue entirely bereft of easy answers. We want our society to be safe, and yet we also want it to be just, and our elected officials and soldiers to be accountable, while still being able to do their jobs. If anything, the film suggests that we can’t reasonably expect all of those things. The final word goes to Rickman, whose final on-screen appearance this is, and he delivers it with all the subtlety and power you would expect from a performer of his calibre, aided by the script, which has been consistently thoughtful and precise throughout: technology may make warfare cleaner and safer (for some people at least), but it doesn’t make it easier. Eye in the Sky grips like a vice, while still managing to be moving and thought-provoking. One of the best two or three films I have seen so far this year.

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Despite all evidence to the contrary, not to mention (some might suggest) simple common sense, my favourite film of the year so far is still, probably, Cloud Atlas, simply for its utter courageous bonkersness. There’s one thing you can say about Tom Hanks, which is that he’s not afraid to go out on a limb once in a while and take on a less mainstream project than you might expect of someone who’s essentially one of the most respected mainstream movie actors on the planet. His latest film, Captain Phillips, is perhaps another example of this, being just a little more edgy and political than most.


Then again, it’s directed by Paul Greengrass, maestro of the two best Bourne movies by far, and occupies the same sort of naturalistic geopolitical terrain. It is essentially an account of the true story of the coming together of two men, Richard Phillips (Hanks), master of a huge container ship with a crew of twenty, and Abduwali Muse (Barkhad Abdi), chief of a rather fragile dinghy with a complement of four AK-47 toting pirates.

We first see Phillips driving to the airport from his Vermont home, having a very banal conversation with his wife en route. We first see Muse in a remote part of Somalia, recruiting men for his latest expedition – the pirates have to bribe their way into a spot on the dinghy – and the story continues along these parallel lines until the pair finally come to face to face. Phillips’ latest assignment is to take his vessel around the horn of Africa from Oman to Mombasa, into pirate-infested waters.

It seems barely credible that a huge ship like Phillips’ could be seriously threatened by a tiny launch carrying only a handful of men, and this is perhaps reflected in the captain’s shock and incredulity as the pirates first appear on his radar (needless to say, Hanks portrays this well). The outcome of the pirates’ assault is by no means a foregone conclusion and the battle of wits between the two commanders is grippingly depicted and extremely tense. This is all the more impressive given that the movie’s own publicity makes it very clear that the pirates eventually get on board!

What follows concerns Phillips’ attempts to safeguard his ship and crew while deflecting Muse, who is equally determined to get back to Somalia with a big payday. What’s striking is the way that, initially at least, Phillips consistently underestimates Muse’s intelligence and determination. Considering the assymmetrical nature of the conflict, it seems fairly clear that Greengrass is, on some level, framing the film as an allegory for terrorist attacks on America. This is never much more than a subtext, however, and given how it all plays out (no spoilers, but the might of the US navy goes into action) it’s not exactly subversively presented.

The first half of Captain Phillips is superb – Greengrass is a master of this kind of grown-up thriller, and Hanks and Abdi are both excellent. The cagey interaction between the two captains is consistently gripping throughout the sequences set on the container ship.

However, the second half of the movie mostly takes place on a lifeboat commandeered by the pirates, in which Phillips is being held hostage, and this I found rather less successful. There’s a lot of arguing amongst the pirates as to what they’re going to do, the doings of various forces of the US military moving into position around them are also documented, and Hanks himself gets relatively little to do: though still the central figure of the drama, he’s reduced to being a passive figure, even a victim – and while Hanks gives this his best shot, you still get a sense of a movie not making best use of its greatest resource.

This is a serious film, not a popcorn action movie, and a slightly tough watch in places as a result. Nevertheless, the central story is interesting enough, and certainly well-enough told, for it to be a rewarding experience, even if it isn’t particularly innovative or thought-provoking. Certainly there’s no kind of moral relativism going on here – Muse gets some dialogue explaining how the pirates are really only fishermen forced into a new line of work by the pressures of globalisation, and bemoaning the lack of opportunity available to Somalis as opposed to Americans, but this isn’t much more than lip-service. (Tom Hanks and Paul Greengrass gamely showed up on a UK news programme to discuss the film with a Somali activist complaining that it demonised all Somalis, as opposed to just the pirates.)

Then again, there’s a limit to how much you can make people who take over boats at gunpoint sympathetic. To be fair, Barkhad Abdi does a very good job of making a ruthless, desperate man into a human being rather than a bogeyman, and he holds the screen against Hanks’ star charisma impressively well. One suspects he may be in the running for the annual ethnic-diversity Best Supporting Actor fig-leaf nomination, but equally one can legitimately wonder exactly what kind of mainstream movie career he can look forward to: it’s hard to conceive of him getting a supporting role in a popcorn blockbuster or rom-com.

Anyway, this is a very well-made movie with strong performances, even if the first half is rather more engaging than the second. As a result it is solid rather than actually outstanding, but it’s still a quality piece of film-making.

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