By Kevin J. Kelley
A fiction film supposedly set in Nairobi’s Eastleigh neighbourhood opened in wide release in the US this week to glowing reviews and sizeable box-office receipts.
“Eye in the Sky” dramatises the circumstances leading up to a drone attack on an Al-Shabaab safe house where militants are preparing for suicide bombings of civilian targets.
The thriller derives its power from a seemingly realistic portrayal of an agonising decision-making process involving military officers and politicians in the UK and US.
Tension mounts as the British and American controllers of the Hellfire missiles poised high above Eastleigh debate whether to launch a strike that could result in civilian casualties.
Concern centres on the presence of an innocent young girl selling bread from a table adjacent to the target zone.
An aura of authenticity is established in the first few minutes of the movie through actual footage of a Shabaab shooter inside the Westgate shopping mall and a newscaster’s mention of the slaughter at Garissa University College.
The street scenes, shown at ground level and from spy cameras disguised as a bird and winged insect, will also appear realistic to audiences unfamiliar with “Little Mogadishu.”
The depiction is distorted, however.
Heavily armed Shabaab fighters in uniforms are shown patrolling Eastleigh on foot and in battle wagons.
They openly exert cruel authority over the residents of a section of Kenya’s capital city. The militants’ control goes unchallenged by Kenyan police and soldiers.
The action supposedly taking place in Eastleigh was actually filmed not in Nairobi but on sets in Cape Town.
Director Gavin Hood, a South Africa native, explained to media outlet News24.com that he chose to make the movie in the South African city because “Cape Town is a world-class location.”
“And the crews are world class,” he added. “They shot constantly on international and local films. It’s been a joy to come home and work on a film that I feel passionate about.”
“Eye in the Sky” succeeds in provoking viewers by posing moral quandaries that cannot be simply resolved.
As the film convincingly suggests, counter-terrorism operations do not necessarily present clear choices between good and evil.
A British colonel played by Oscar-winning actress Helen Mirren is keen to launch a strike that will likely kill a few top Shabaab figures, including a female UK citizen modelled on “white widow” Samantha Lewthwaite.
Ms Mirren’s character argues that the potential death of the nine-year-old bread seller is outweighed by the need to avert attacks that could take scores of Kenyans’ lives.
‘COLLATERAL DAMAGE’Her political overseers are reluctant to launch the missiles, however, due in part to fear that the “collateral damage” to civilians may become publicly known through leaked video.
A Kenyan spy played by Somali-American actor Barkhad Abdi (an Oscar nominee for his role in “Captain Phillips”) has infiltrated the Shabaab stronghold to guide the flight of a tiny drone and, in an improvised assignment, buy up the girl’s bread so she will be removed from harm’s way.
The New York Times called “Eye in the Sky” a “riveting thriller. The Los Angeles Times said the screenplay by Guy Hibbert is “thoughtful, piercing and laced with dark-coming absurdities.” The film is “a taut nail-biter” and “superbly acted,” the LA newspaper added.
The movie registered nearly $1 million in ticket sales during its first weekend of screenings in the US.
That sum signified “a robust launch,” according to a movie-industry publication.
“Eye in the Sky” currently ranks as the eleventh-most popular film currently in US cinemas.
Plans for release in Kenya of “Eye in the Sky” have not been finalised.