Eye in the Sky Worth Rediscovering



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.


Bruce Ackerson Puts Whimsy Back into Art


Bruce Ackerson

Birds-Eye Views

Fine Arts Center, University of Massachusetts Amherst

Through May 14, 2021

Artist Website: https://bruceackerson.net/section/225137.html




I was only passingly familiar with the works of Northampton-based artist Bruce Ackerson until the UMass Fines Art Center launched an exhibit of his paintings titled Birds-Eye Views. It is, of course, exceedingly difficult to get to see the exhibit at present, but Ackerson has a superb Website of all that is in the UMass exhibit and more that is not.




Birds-Eye Views is an apt title, but it also a limiting one. Ackerson does skew our vision by placing our eyes in the sky and forcing us to gaze downward. In this regard, he reminds me a bit of Grant Wood. “Boxcar Getaway,” for instance, is fraught with danger reminiscent of Wood’s “Death on Ridge Road.” The survival odds are low for the figure attempting to allude his pursuers by leaping off a cliff onto a moving train. “Baddy Redpants” has a better chance; he has used a moving flock of sheep to put distance between himself and those chasing him. Ackerson, though, is East Coast to Wood’s Midwest, suburban to his rural, and is more interested in keeping us off balance than in inducing pathos. 



Ackerson perhaps also echoes Wood in that his style might be called deliberate primitivism. If you’re going to defy perspective, go whole hog. Don’t worry about table legs that don’t look to be 3-D, walls that lean, or cartoon-like figures. According to the UMass writeup, Ackerson’s is an “imaginative take on popular culture, modern life and the hidden world of the human psyche.” In works such as “Artist” or “Artists and Collectors,” we are not sure if the central figure is showing us a canvas or a picture window that opens onto the real world.   


What will strike most people is Ackerson’s sharp, often surreal sense of humor. For all the high-falutin’ ways one could describe Ackerson’s works, his own take is that a lot of it is simply “goofy.” It’s hard not to love the lack of pretense in that description. It’s also hard not to see that he’s right. “Port-o-Pool” is dips in the back of a semi; “Girls Having Fun” is three women giving two lads an eyeful, but from their perch atop a cliff the boys can’t access. Ever wonder what Santa does in the off-season? “Walk in the Woods” will inform you. If you’ve had it up to your eyeteeth with burly males throwing their weight around, check out “Two Macho Men” and let me know your preferred outcome. “Saving Timmy” will raise a snort from anyone old enough to remember the TV show Lassie.



There are several themes that come through in Ackerson’s works beyond perspective and humor. One is that a lot of them are set at the beach. This probably linked to the time he spends in Provincetown on Cape Cod; its Rice Polak Gallery is where many of Ackerson’s works are for sale.  He enjoys depicting running figures bolting out of pools or across cliffs and sand dunes, then adds twists of why they’re in a hurry. “Swimming and Cake” and “Cake Time” are mad dashes out of the water and toward a groaning board laden with yummy delights. An even funnier take on his predilection for food themes is “Pizza!” It’s as if training for the Olympics ceased to indulge in rapture that comes in a crust. Ackerson enhances the illusion via an aerial perspective that makes it look as if servers are bearing sacred offerings.


He also indulges us in other fantasies. “Presents for Everyone!” is the way life should be. In a different vein, “Strap-on Wings” evokes a low-altitude training school for a would-be Icarus. Think you’ve had a bad day? “One Thing After Another” will make you feel better. “Joggers” is an amusing-if-ominous sprint that (perhaps) is a backdoor commentary on those who claim the world dates only to 4,004 BCE.


If I had to pick one of Ackerson’s painting as my favorite, the honor would go to “Spaghetti Night.” Mom and dad y fancy themselves as jugglers and are attempting the famed “pass” maneuver, except instead of Indian clubs they are tossing pasta-and-sauce-filled plates across the room with predictable results. Three children look on, two with arms out in a supplicative manner as their airborne dinners splatter onto the floor. It appeals to my boyhood sense of wonder and mirth. I admire an artist who makes me laugh aloud instead of muttering over affectations and pretense.


Rob Weir




Hypocrites (1915) an Important Film Lesson



Directed by Elliot Reivers and Lois Weber (uncredited)

Paramount, 49 minutes, not-rated






If you have not studied film history, you might think there was never any nudity in American movies until the 1960s. Not so. Until 1934, when an older moral code began to be enforced, lots of films had nude scenes. What changed, beginning with the 1963 offering Promises! Promises! was that Hollywood started to ignore said code. In 1968, it was shelved. Hypocrites, a 1915 silent film that was the brainchild of Lois Weber, was one of numerous pre-code films that sported a clothes-off actress: Margaret Edwards. Weber wrote, produced, and codirected a project that was informally called The Naked Truth because of Edwards.


Hypocrites is a series of vignettes in two acts. In the first, we meet Gabriel the Ascetic (Courtenay Foote), a medieval monk. We see him feverishly working behind the locked door of his monastic cell. His abbot, (Herbert Standing) and fellow monks think he is both obsessed and standoffish and, to a degree, they are correct. They fail to see that Gabriel lives on a spiritual plane far above their own. They humor Gabriel and agree to unveil his secret sculpture before the queen and a gathering of villagers. Unveil is the correct word; when the curtain lifts, a comely female nude in marble so shocks viewers that they murder Gabriel.


Everything in the film is an allegory, so what happens next is open to interpretation. We see a ghostly nude (Edwards) appear before Gabriel to beckon him up at rugged hillside. As he climbs, some villagers–especially women–try to follow him. They fall by the wayside. The Truth leads Gabriel to a gate, which leads to a summit overlooking a spectacular view. Gabriel stands enraptured. Is this a prequel or a post-mortem scene? Do the gates open to spiritual enlightenment, or do they represent the Gates of Paradise? Take your pick; it works either way. What is clear is that most people are more interested in worldly things than in a saintly life.


In the next act, we see Foote in the guise of a modern-day (1915) minister preaching a sermon on hypocrisy. It outrages the congregation, some of whom plot to rid themselves of their sanctimonious minister. They need not have bothered. He sits disconsolately by the pulpit, dies, and only a handful of congregants mourn his passing. This is the setup for vignettes in which we witness the hypocrisy of his detractors. The nude Edwards appears in each, as if to call our attention to their serial violations of the seven deadly sins: pride, greed, envy, gluttony, wrath, sloth, and lust. Truth is naked, pure, and innocent, but only nudity arouses ire.


Ambiguity again comes into play. Is the minister a reincarnation of Gabriel? Is this Weber’s sideways critique of Christians who focus on form rather than substance? Is the Christian hang-up about nudity the ultimate hypocrisy? Are sins committed behind closed doors somehow less serious? Weber’s film was thought to be scandalous and anticlerical in its day, but was that view crafted by titular hypocrites who willfully ignored Weber’s premise?  


At this stage I should remind you that this is both a silent film and one that is more than a century old. Some stock has been tinted, which helps with resolution but many parts of Hypocrites are too badly damaged to allow for full restoration. Remember also that silent films are exactly that. Aside from a few dialogue or expository slides, narrative is communicated by histrionic gestures, exaggerated lighting, and dramatic makeup. Foote’s facial mask is often suggestive of a sickly raccoon.


You need to know, however, that much of what you see was pathbreaking in 1915. Weber used multiple exposures and overlap to create Edwards’ phantasmagorical physical qualities. Choosing Edwards was also inspired; she is the very essence of naked innocence. Nor should we overlook that Weber was a rare female director and producer in a decidedly male film world.


I can't promise you will find Hypocrites to be enthralling viewing–its surfaces and acting are too dated and mannered for most tastes–but it's an important historical document. And, if I might, it made me think of the hypocrisy of many contemporary clerics. You know, the ones that rail against sex as a way of diverting attention from their devotion to violating the seven deadly sins. Sooner or later, though, most of them are caught with their pants down!


Rob Weir