4/9/21

Bombshell A Needed Reminder of Fox News Perfidy

 

BOMBSHELL (2019/20)

Directed by Jay Roach

Lionsgate, 109 minutes, R (language, adult situations)

★★★★

 

Conservatives spin it nine ways to Sunday, but Fox News in America’s Pravda. At best it is schtick pretending to be investigative journalism. Neo-fascists such as Pat Buchanan, Sean Hannity, Rush Limbaugh, and Bill O’Reilly have gotten away with outrageous antics by banking on the assumption that the majority of its viewers will not differentiate between objectivity and accusation. It’s also a place where women are hired for shapely legs, not their knowledge of current affairs.

 

Sexism is the one thing that has pumped the brakes at Fox. Bombshell uses quasi-documentary storytelling to recount how it felled Fox CEO/chairman Roger Ailes (John Lithgow) and O’Reilly in 2016. The movie focuses on two of the Miss Americas hired by Fox: Megyn Kelly (Charlize Theron) and Gretchen Carlson (Nicole Kidman). Bombshell has a few serious craters, but it lifts the veil on a media machine fueled by manufactured outrage, piggish males, and fear.

 

The Fox house of cards began to wobble after Carlson was fired in 2013, though the Bombshell narrative centers more on Kelly. This is partly because Carlson’s contract stipulated that she could not sue the network, so she instead had to bring suit against Ailes for sexual harassment. For a time, she was a lone crusader; others lacked the courage to admit that had been fondled, ogled, degraded, or pressured into sexual encounters with Ailes. Most feared dismissal and knew that, with rare exceptions, Fox News was a dead-end job that destroyed one’s journalistic credibility.

 

Everyone, though, has limits. Kelly found herself branded disloyal when she dared push candidate Donald Trump on numerous allegations of sexual impropriety. In 2016, few understood the depth of Trump’s perfidy or thuggish tactics. You might recall that Trump counterpunched with remarks implying that Kelly was leaking blood from her vagina and thus suffering from menstrual hysteria. One wonders what would have happened had Trump the intelligence to put down the gloves when he was ahead, or if Ailes had stopped behaving like a 75-year-old horny teenager. Eventually, Kelly also joined the lawsuit, though she knew it meant her Fox career was over. But not even owner Rupert Murdoch (Malcolm McDowell)­­­—nobody’s idea of a shrinking violet—could ignore the allegations and, in 2016, he canned Ailes and O’Reilly. 

 

I wish the makers of Bombshell had stuck to the ugly facts and kept their focus. The film’s documentary style involved re-creating the newsroom. It is overstuffed with characters—nearly 50 in total—which means that other nasty creatures such as Susan Estrich, Kimberly Guilfoyle, Hannity, Abby Huntsman, O’Reilly, Geraldo Rivera, Bill Shine, Chris Wallace, and Murdoch’s sons have roles that are little more than creepy cameos. A more curious decision was to introduce two fictional main characters: Kayla Pospisil (Margot Robbie) and Jess Carr (Kate McKinnon). Pospisil is an ambitious evangelical who wants to advance the “Jesus agenda” for Fox, and Carr is an O’Reilly Factor staffer who is both a closeted liberal supporter of Hillary Clinton and a closeted lesbian who beds the not-exactly-by-the-Bible Pospisil (who is also an Ailes victim). Allegedly, both women are Fox News composites who don’t wish to come public. If so, why put them in the movie in the first place?

 

Rudy Giuliani (Richard Kind) also delivers an on-screen rant. He gets no sympathy from me but, in truth, he played no part in the Ailes/O’Reilly debacle. Unless you ascribe to the view–and I do not–that it’s okay to lie to takedown liars, it is inexcusable to fictionalize just to give Robbie a juicy part or take a gratuitous swipe at Giuliani. It is also a disservice to those 23 women brave enough to subject themselves to the further indignation of public scrutiny.

 

Theron is very good as Kelly, whom she serves up as equal parts icy, savvy, and conflicted. Despite star power such as Theron, Kidman, and Robbie, though, John Lithgow steals the movie. He is positively chilling in depicting Ailes as an amoral and chilling predator who believed himself too powerful to challenge. I also admired the decision not to lionize anyone at Fox. We come away disgusted by Ailes and O’Reilly, but Bombshell is also a portrait of those who valued money, celebrity, and power over truth, morality, or decency­– predators and victims alike. Sexual harassment is always wrong, but victimhood alone does not someone honorable.

 

 It is, though, hard to get past two hard-to-swallow ironies. Fox paid its harassment victims $50 million in settlements, but shelled out $65 million to buyout Ailes and O’Reilly. There is also the matter of how Bombshell was received by the film establishment. The only awards it consistently won were for hair styling.

 

Rob Weir

 

 

4/7/21

The Four Winds A Mixed Effort

The Four Winds (2021)

Kristin Hannah

St. Martin's Press, 464 pages.

★★★

 

 

It’s risky when contemporary authors try to update classical literature. When done well, the results sparkle and refresh; when botched, readers wonder what tempted them to go where angels fear to tread. Kristin Hannah's The Four Winds is inspired by John Steinbeck’s masterpiece The Grapes of Wrath and lands in mid-spectrum between success and failure. At its best moments, it makes us feel the utter despair of being trapped in the Great Dust Bowl, perhaps the greatest eco-disaster in American history.

 

The Dust Bowl (1930-36) saw winds howl across the Great Plains and rip away the topsoil. To give a measure of how bad they were, in April 1935, the noonday sun in Boston, Washington, and New York was blackened out by dust that originated in Montana. Small farmers simply could not survive year after year of drought, which is why the Okies and Arkies of Steinbeck’s tale packed their possessions into rickety trucks and headed for California. 

 

 Hannah's twist is that her protagonists are from West Texas, a place often overlooked in Dust Bowl narratives. We first meet Elsa Wolcott in 1921, she the daughter of uppity, parents who told her she was too plain for anyone to desire. Their self-righteous cruelty drives her into the arms of Rafe Martinelli, who impregnates her. The two best things to come out of were a daughter, Loreda, and finding acceptance in the home of Rafe’s parents, Tony and Rose, who become surrogates for Elsa’s parents, who disowned her. Elsa never dreamed of being a farmer’s wife, let alone being part of an Italian household radically different from that of her formative years. Soon, another child, Anthony, joined the extended family. If this sounds a tad too sentimental, you’re right.

 

Jump ahead to 1934, when Loreda is 12 and Anthony 7. It is a year of hunger, desperation, and dust so thick that schools close, animals starve, and dirt flies into the house through every crevice. Tony remains optimistic that the rains will come, but Rafe doesn’t believe it. He begins to drink and dream–seldom a good combination. One day, he simply disappears, which is the last thing a daughter on the cusp of teenhood needs from a father whom she idolizes.

 

Hannah’s writing is at its most vivid when describing the horrors of the Dust Bowl. She places readers inside a ruined landscape in which machinery, outbuildings, and even livestock disappear under mounds of dirt. Imagine tornadoes filled with topsoil. One by one, farmers pack it in and head for California. When rain doesn’t come, Elsa and her children join the westward sojourners, though Tony and Rose stay put. This middle third of the book is Hannah’s strongest.

 

Many Dust Bowl stories discuss jalopies, hungry travelers, and makeshift campsites of American refugees from their own country. Hannah reminds us of less-discussed dangers along the way: theft, muggings, and sexual assault, to name a few. The experience of arriving in California is a scene straight out of a Woody Guthrie song. (Listen to his “Do Re Mi.”) If you think of the treatment of Latino immigrants today, that’s how Dust Bowl refugees were treated: backbreaking work, hostile locals, filthy camps, take-it-or-starve pay, and company store schemes that turn laborers into wage slaves. Back in Texas, Tony and Rose barely survive, but New Deal programs offer some hope.

 

As the calendar turns to 1936, conditions in California deteriorate and anger rises. At this juncture, Hannah introduces Jack Valen, a Communist Party (CPUSA) organizer. This is the weakest part of the novel. Hannah correctly surmises the inherent conservatism of bosses and migrants alike, but once Valen is placed within Elsa’s and Loreda’s sphere, you can probably storyboard a sizable chunk of this part of the novel. CPUSA organizers were unsung heroes during the hardest years of the Depression, but Hannah’s labor strife sections founder in a sea of one-dimensional situations and carboard cutout characters. This is compounded by the moving contrasts between individual tragedies and the shorter shrift given to collective tragedy and politics. Moreover, characters often speak and act in anachronistic ways that make it obvious that Hannah has contemporary border migrants in mind. The mood of the coda also feels like today dressed in 1940 garb.

 

Forgive the cliché, but The Four Winds is no Grapes of Wrath. Oddly, one of the reasons is that Hannah’s search for modern-day relevance dulls the vibrancy of the novel’s middle sections. I liked The Four Winds, but it reminded of a “B” student essay that squandered “A” material.

 

Rob Weir

4/5/21

AMERICAN LEAGUE EAST PREDICTIONS 2021;

 

Original logo, though maybe we might need a Buffalo Bisons patch

Welcome to the “if” edition of MLB predictions. Lots of MLB analysts say the Yankees will roll to the AL East crown, but for the life of me–and I’m a Yankees fan–I fail to see how they come to that conclusion. Every team except the Orioles could win, if everything goes their way. So, let’s take a look on that basis.

 

The Blue Jays have rebuilt and it’s uncertain whether they are ready, or still a year or two away.Heck, who knows if they'll even play in Toronto this year. Still, they can win...

 

            If Bichette, Biggio, Gurriel Jr. and Guerrero Jr. are ready to leap into stardom;

            If Springer is the veteran glue that inspires them to greatness;

            If Hernandez, Semien, and Tellez hit more than just homeruns.

            If Someone other than Ryu pitches well. Therein lies their fate. Ray, Roark, and Stripling have never been more than serviceable, and Matz has been neither healthy nor good in his 6 years in the Bigs.

 

There is no sense wasting time with the Orioles.  Felix Fernandez will probably be one f their starters and that speaks volumes. It would take a miracle for the O’s to be within sniffing distance of a .500 season.

 

The Rays shop in the bargain basement and still manage to look like they’re dressed in designer duds. I’m not so sure about that this year. They can still win…

 

            If Arozarena’s postseason wasn’t a fluke. Based on the latter, he’s being called a budding superstar. Really? May I remind people that Denny Doyle was almost a World Series MVP.

            If two or more of the following hit for power: Adames, Choi, Lowe, or Meadows hit for power; otherwise, the Rays will scrape for runs.

            If Hill doesn’t wake up one morning and realize he’s old.

            If Wacha adjusts to the AL.

            If Archer isn’t his usual mediocre self.

 

The Red Sox have been written off and I hope that’s true because I think it’s a travesty that Cora is still allowed to manage an MLB team. Commonsense tells me, though, that the Red Sox have a much better everyday lineup than the Rays. They can surprise…

 

            If Dalbec is more than an AAA slugger who strikes out more than he makes contact.

            If (J.D.) Martinez bounces back and isn’t on the downhill slide.

            If Renfroe, Cordero, and Richards don’t demonstrate why they’ve been traded. (I have my doubts about the latter two.

            If they find a decent everyday 2B.

            If Devers doesn’t regress with the glove.

            If Eovaldi and Rodriguez stay healthy. Odds are low on that.

            If Pivetta is a steal. (He might be; the Phillies are horrible at evaluating talent.)

            If (Martin) Perez doesn’t revert to being a hitter’s best friend. Smart money is on the second option.

            If Ottavino isn’t out of gas.

            If Sale returns and makes an impact. History isn’t on his side.

 

The Yankees are more beloved by sabermetrics wingnuts than by dispassionate analysts. Their superstar at every position approach too often outweighs commonsense. Everyone in the lineup is capable of hitting 25-45 homeruns, but the baseball isn’t hopped up like a meth addict this year and just one guy, LeMahieu, is known for getting on base a lot. They will flame out unless they adjust to situational hitting instead of highlight reel homeruns. They can only succeed…

 

            If Hicks and Urshela are healthy and adjust their swings to maximize OBP.

            If Judge and Stanton actually stay off the DL for a change. Otherwise, they’re just flashy toys.

            If Torres proves he can play SS.

            If Frazier continues to improve.

            If Taillon and Kluber are really healthy. Taillon is just 29, but he’s had two Tommy John surgeries and Kluber’s last two seasons were nightmares.

            If the Yankees have the wisdom to see that German could be their #2 pitcher.

            If Servino comes off the DL and contributes with big outtings.

            If O’Day, Loisiga, and someone else replace what the bullpen lost. Green will need to be reliable as well.

 

AL East Predictions:

 

1. Blue Jays:             Simply because they are younger, healthier, and hungrier.

2. Rays:                     They are seldom great, but they’re usually good.

3. Yankees:               If all those “ifs” come true, they’ll win, but it’s a long list.

4.  Red Sox:              A ton of ifs, but not nuts to think they could pass the Yanks.

5.  Orioles:                 The stink won’t be from the Chesapeake.

4/2/21

NATIONAL LEAGUE EAST PREVIEW 2021

 

Yes, kiddos, the Braves began in Boston, then went to Milwaukee

The NL East should be baseball’s most competitive division.

 

The Braves won it last year and, on paper, they’re still the best team in the East. They feature fearsome hitters–Acuna, Albies, Freeman, Ozuna, Swanson–and the only relief is that thus far Pache and Riley have been low on-base-percentage players. Only a solid-but-not-spectacular pitching staff puts a brake on the Atlanta juggernaut. Morton has a lot of mileage on his arm, Smyly manages to avoid being what scouts think he should be, and Wright and (Ian) Anderson can be gotten to. (Will) Smith is not yet an elite closer.

 

The Marlins, as usual, are a bunch of youngsters who might or might not be good. None of their starting pitchers is older than 25, and the only hitters that are household names are Dickerson and Marte, the latter of whom has not been the star he was projected to be. There are players who can mash, but several of them–Duvall, Alfaro, Diaz–have low on-base percentages. It’s hard to imagine the Fish will be competitive in the NL East.

 

The Mets have been picked as a possible Cinderella team. Potentially, only the Dodgers and Nationals can rival their pitching staff, but beware the term “potentially.” DeGrom is an annual Cy Young candidate, but Stroman, Walker, Peterson, and Lucchesi are inconsistent. The Mets fleeced the Indians by picking up Carrasco in the trade for Lindor, but he’s on the DL. For once, the Mets lineup is more than one stud and 7 dwarves. Lindor, Conforto, (Dominic) Smith, and Alonso is a solid middle of the lineup. The Mets have the potential to be best team in New York this year, but again there’s that qualifier: potential.

 

The Nationals staff is better than that of the Mets, if everyone stays healthy. That too comes with an imaginary asterisk. Strasburg has battled injuries his entire career and the aging Lester had surgery several weeks ago. Scherzer, though, will give deGrom and Kershaw (Dodgers) a run for the Cy Young award. On paper, their lineup is a step behind the Mets. Robles needs to improve and 3B Kieboom needs to prove he belongs. They plucked Schwarber from the Cubs and we’ll see if his power numbers decline outside of Wrigley Field. They’d better not, as he’s never been a high OBP guy. But Soto, Turner, Bell, and Castro are very good players.

 

My # 4 I-don’t-believe-in-you team is the chronically underperforming Phillies. Harper was supposed to be the NL’s answer to Mike Trout. He has stretches of brilliance, but he’s been more like bottom round than prime rib. The Phils lacked high OBP guys last year and you need them to eke out runs against great pitching. Speaking of great pitching, that of the Phillies is merely okay. Nola, Eflin, and Velasquez were supposed to be can’t-miss hurlers but only Nola shows any signs of being poised for a breakout. Arieta is gone and they’ll need Moore–back from Japan–or the chronically injured Wheeler to step up. Don’t bet on it.

 

NL East Predictions:

 

1. Braves:                  They will be pushed, but I like their unflappable consistency.

2. Nationals:              If their staff is healthy, this is a Wild Card team.

3. Mets:                      I’m not as impressed by their pitching as most.

4. Phillies:                  Prove you’re a good team, or start over.

5.  Marlins:                Bunch of unknowns, but it won’t shock if they overtake the Phillies.

3/31/21

MLB Central: In the Cards and Twinsies?

MLB PREVIEW CENTRAL 2021

 

National League Central:

 

Cards logo form 1950s

This should be a tight division, as each of the top three teams has weaknesses.

 

The Brewers would be the favorites if they had pitching. In Holder they have perhaps the best closer in the NL, but you have to get to him first. None of their projected starters has much experience, so it’s hard to know what will happen when they crack open the cans. They Brew Crew will hit, though 1B (Hiura or Vogelbach), SS (Arcia), and catcher (Narvaez) are question marks. If the Brewers falter, Holder might be a Yankee by midsummer.

 

The Cardinals are the Oakland A’s of the NL in that they get a lot mileage out lesser known players. They will fill in around Arenado and Goldschmidt, the latter of whom needs to be a stud for the offense to work. DeJong needs to hit, which he hasn’t done so far. Ditto Bader and (Tyler) O’Neill. Concerns: 38-year-old Molina has to break down at some point, yes? It’s a miracle Wainwright is still pitching given his injury history, but he too is 38 and this is probably the last time his pony goes around the carousel. Mikolas is on the DL. 24-year-old Hicks is expected to close. In other words, pitching could ground the Cardinals.

 

Nobody will admit it, but the Cubs are shedding payroll and are doing a quiet makeover. Their top three pitchers and the middle of the lineup will keep them in the midst of things, but at some point, they need to part ways with Heyward, who simply never justified his big contract. Pederson might help, but he’s the supposed-to-be stud who hasn’t been. At 2B, Hoerner might be the future but he’s probably not the now.

 

The Reds went all in last year and it didn’t work. They have some good hitters, but unless (Sonny) Gray continues his resurrection and Miley steps up, Luis Castillo is another guy who might be a Yankee.

 

The Pirates have been rebuilding longer than Pompeii. Both are ruins.

 

American League Central:

 

Logo from when Twins were an expansion team

The Indians are like the city of Cleveland; there’s never enough money for what is needed. Francona is among the best managers in baseball and he has the core of a good staff in Bieber, Civale, and Plesac but beyond them, who? Nobody knows who will play first, though Bradley has the inside track. He’s been in the majors for 6 years, but has been in just 53 games. Projected closer Karinchak has saved exactly one game in his career. It’s like this throughout the roster, once one gets passed proven players such as (Eddie) Rosario, (Cesar) Hernandez, Perez, and (Jose) Ramirez.

 

The Royals should be much better. Something tells me the Red Sox will wish a do-over in trading Benintendi. he will fit into a lineup that can do some damage, though SS Mondesi and (Nicky) Lopez need to break out. The rotation is thin past Minor and Duffy.

 

The Tigers are improving, but they took a hit when Mize, their top pitching prospect, lost the ability to find the strike zone. There is a lot of work to do. Miggy Cabrera will probably retire after the season and other than Schoop, there lineup looks like a snooze fest. Boyd, Norris, and Fulmer are guys who stand a 50/50 chance of pitching better or being candidates for catch-and-release.

 

The Twins are, as usual, good enough to win the Central but nada in the post season. It’s a team that looks better on paper than it actually is. They hit a lot of homeruns, but can they thump their way over the hump? I doubt it, as beyond Maeda the pitching is suspect. Happ is 38, Berrios is a middle reliever converted to a starter, Shoemaker has been awful the last two years, and you never, ever want to depend to Pineda to miss a bat in a key situation.

 

Most analysts say the division will go to the White Sox. Maybe, but it’s also theirs for the losing. The everyday lineup, with the exception of 24-year-old 2B Madrigal looks awesome. Pitching could be the Achilles’ heel, though, especially since Kopech can’t stay healthy. Keuchel and Lynn need to be really good, not just veteran presences.

 

NL Central Predictions;

 

1. Cardinals:             They won’t overwhelm, but smart management helps plug gaps.

2. Cubs:                     Enough pitching, some fine hitters, and bandbox Wrigley help.

3. Brewers:                They need pitchers. Period.

4. Reds:                     I doubt Votto finishes his career in Cincy.

5. Pirates:                  They might finish 3rd in the International League.

 

AL Central Predictions:

 

1. Twins:                    Good enough to win a tight division.

2.  Royals:                 They are my dark horse hunch.

3.  White Sox:           They have swagger, but they lack the arms to back it up.

4.  Indians:                Cleveland is a dead city. Move the Tribe.

5.  Tigers:                  More holes than a New England backroad in March. 

3/29/21

Dodgers and Athletics to Win the West?

MLB PREVIEW WAY OUT WEST

 

National League:

 

Brooklyn or LA--Stay Outta the Way

 

 

The Dodgers are so far above everyone else that the only hope anyone has is that an earthquake wipes out their roster. They should waltz to the NL crown. There are simply no glaring weaknesses.

 

No one knows that the Diamondbacks management is up to. The lineup is okay, but not inspiring. There’s not much to say about the pitching, because there isn’t any. They are counting on Bumgarner to be an ace, but (sadly) he probably will never be what he was before the injury bug bit him like a hungry teenager attacking a Dagwood sandwich.

 

The Giants have a lineup filled with guys over 30, and several of them have spent a lot of time on the DL. Crawford, Belt, Posey, and even Yaztremski could be trade bait if the Giants decide to rebuild. If they can dump Cueto for three fungos and a traveling bag, they should. The only pitcher on the staff worth keeping is Wood.

 

The Padres are the dark horse of those who like to gamble on long odds. There are four teams in MLB who always look good on paper and never are; the Padres are one of them. Is 2021 the year they break the streak? I don’t think so. If Myers ever becomes the player he’s supposed to–he won’t–and if Pham is more than a nice spare part, that will help. They stole Snell from the Rays, but the pitching is more than suspect. Even if Darvish’s 2020 wasn’t a fluke, they still need Musgrove, Lamet, and Paddack to have career years. Doubtful. Pomeranz and Pagan as dual closers? Meh!

 

Speaking of not knowing what management is up to, I offer the Rockies. Still, if the Padres implode (quite possible), they have a shot at 2nd place in the NL West. Blackmon and Story are fine players (if not traded), Freeland and (Jon) Gray are decent starters, and if Bard is truly resurrected as a closer, things might shift their way.

 

 

American League West

 

Logo used when the A's were in Philly and KC
 

This will not be a good division. Period.

 

Lots of people want the Angels to win, just so MLB’s best player, Mike Trout, sees a postseason. A lot needs to go right for that to happen. Ohtani needs to stay off the DL. Ditto Fowler. Upton needs to be the player he was projected to be but never has been. At age 34, that’s unlikely. First, second, and catcher are manned by Abbot and Costello’s who? But it starts and ends with pitching and when you try to build a staff with Orioles’ castoffs, you are counting on a miracle. Basically, it’s a bunch of guys who perpetually disappoint: Bundy, Cobb, Heaney, Quintana. This is the second team I refuse to get excited about until proven wrong.

 

The Astros–the team everyone outside of Texas despises–lost several good players over the offseason, but they still might win the division. It probably won’t be easy if they do. Maldonado has to emerge as a decent hitter and catcher, Straw has to prove he’s an everyday player, and Pressly is an unproven closer. Verlander won’t be back until midseason and even then, he might not be an ace again. That means they need major production from hurlers such as Javier, Urquidy, and Valdez. You probably don’t know those names and therein lies a big challenge.

 

The Athletics always manage to stick around with rosters that make them the Rays of the West. Their starting lineup is gloriously old-fashioned; they are tortoises that manage to finish above the hares. The pitching is questionable, though, especially if Manaea isn’t entirely healthy. Diekman a closer? There’s no indication thus far that he can be.

 

The Mariners should move to Nebraska, as they are MLB’s number one “show me” team. Some say they can win the AL West and I say it could rain rubies from the sky, but it probably won’t. Their everyday lineup is middle of the road at best and depends too much on (Kyle) Seager for production. Paxton returns to the pitching staff, but his mojo basically happens every third or fourth start. Is Sheffield ready? He’s only 24, so it could go either way. Even if the aforementioned duo shines, there’s nothing but question marks behind them.

 

The Rangers rightly decided they needed a rebuild. There are a few proven talents on the roster (Gallo, Odor, Foltynewicz, Gibson) but it’s going to take some time. The closer job is up for grabs, but it might not matter that much.

 

 

NL West Predictions:

 

1. Dodgers:               Has anyone ever clinched by the All-Star break?

2. Rockies:                Call it a hunch because…

3. Padres:                  Sorry, but I just don’t believe in them

4. Giants:                   You could flip flop 4 & 5, but on paper San Fran is better than…

5. Diamondbacks:    A defanged snake.

 

AL West Predictions:

 

1. Athletics:               Roster built from top to bottom generally win.

2. Astros:                   Solid lineup and if the pitching holds up, it’s…

3. Angels:                  Better than one built around stars hiding poseurs.

4. Mariners:               Someday they’ll put it together. Like the next century.

5. Rangers:               Patience is a virtue.

 

 

3/26/21

Eye in the Sky Worth Rediscovering

 

EYE IN THE SKY (2015)

Directed by Gavin Hood

Entertainment One Films, 102 minutes, R (language)

★★★★

 

 

 

Remember the lifeboat ethical dilemma that involved deciding whom to sacrifice to increase the likelihood others in the boat would survive? The grown-up version is the cold calculus upon which military and political decisions rest. Who and how many must die to justify a decision that will potentially save even more lives?

 

I am not usually a fan of military thrillers, but Eye in the Sky is a taut and thoughtful one. It's set in a section of Kenya under the control of El-Shabaab. Not many Westerners or Africans shed tears when El-Shabaab terrorists are killed. Could you push the button that launches a Hellfire missile that would wipe out four leaders and two suicide bomber recruits? Easy call? What if two were British and one an American? Still certain? What if a drone reveals a little girl selling bread outside of the compound in which the bad guys are holed up? High-tech warfare isn’t like the Vietnam War in which pilots released bombs and had little idea of what collateral damage they caused. Now we have the ability to zero in on that little girl’s face. Would you kill her in the name of saving others? Would you make such a decision if it involved one of your loved ones?

 

Eye in the Sky involves a six-year search by Colonel Katherine Powell (Helen Mirren) to locate a British woman who was radicalized, married an El-Shabaab commander, and has masterminded terrorist acts throughout the Horn of Africa. A planned capture goes awry when there wasn’t enough time to pull it off, but Powell now knows exactly where the terrorists are located. She wants to pivot from a capture plan to eliminating all six, but there are politics to be considered. Time is of the essence, but she and Lieutenant General Frank Benson (Alan Rickman) need to clear matters with the United States, British Foreign Secretary James Willett (Iain Glen), and Under-Secretary of State for Africa Angela Northman (Monica Dolan). Northman is adamantly opposed, and Willett wants to pass the buck up the chain of command.

 

Turf wars between military leaders and civilian government are commonplace. As viewers, though, we can't root for a strike that would probably kill a smart and utterly vibrant youngster we know as Alia (Aisha Takow). Plus, even if the strike were to be authorized, the military has to thread the needle between at-risk Kenyan personnel on the ground, those doing facial recognition algorithms in Hawaii, blast radius risk assessment officers in Norwood, England, a Reaper drone flying 20,000 feet above the target, and the Creech Air Force Base in Nevada, which targets and fires the missiles. It doesn't help that Second Lieutenant Steve Watts (Aaron Paul) has never done so, or that his shift assistant, A1C Carrie Gershon (Phoebe Fox) is on her first assignment.

 

The subplots within Eye in the Sky are deftly handled. We know, for instance, Benson has a daughter about Alia’s age; we strongly suspect Powell’s motives are pretty evenly split between dispassionate military duty and clinical obsession. The film also suggests that black agents on the ground are being placed in untenable situations by white commanders. As it is, we see Powell browbeats–through intimidation and word planting–a black assessment officer to lower his calculated risk ratio. Queue another dilemma; the decision makers are much older than the men and women who must carry out their orders and live with the consequences. (Add a dose of the Milgram experiment* to the mix.)

 

It may jar you to see Mirren in camo, but she is utterly believable as the icy Powell. In like fashion, Rickman's blend of analytical, forcefulness, and frosty indignation is a poignant reminder of what the acting world lost when he died in 2016. Paul and Fox also shine in roles that require them to be personally vulnerable yet antiseptically efficient. (Milgram redux?) And we should not overlook the note-perfect performance of Barkhad Abdi as Kenyan agent Jama Faral, who must think on his feet then use them to flee for his life. The editing of Megan Gill and the cinematography of Harris Zambarloukos are integral to making the film work. In just 102 minutes we shuttle between eight major characters, numerous secondary ones, and six locations. If either slipped up, the film would not cohere.

 

Would you kill the girl? Allow the terrorists to walk away, though their future actions will probably kill scores of innocents? Hope for a miracle? Eye in the Sky avoids pat solutions and leaves us unsettled. At times it's hard to know which is scarier, El-Shabaab, or the technology that takes the guesswork out of warfare and puts faces on its victims. Unlike pass-the-buck politicians, Eye in the Sky thrusts us into the life boat to confront what we would do. It is a film that I hated to love.

 

Rob Weir

 

* The 1961 Milgram experiments were psychological investigations partly inspired by Nazi soldiers who pleaded they were forced to carry out death camp atrocities. In the experiments, volunteers were badgered to administer electric shocks to other volunteers—actually actors—though the latter appeared to be in distress. Very few refused.