The two-edged sword of combating terrorism through unmanned strikes is the focus of “Eye in the Sky.” Helen Mirren stars as an all-business British colonel remotely leading a crucial drone operation to capture Islamic militants gathered in a secluded safe house in Nairobi, Kenya.
Oscar-winning director Gavin Hood and screenwriter Guy Hibbert deliver a morally complex thriller polished to a brilliant shine. British, Kenyan and American intelligence units, working together, keep the terrorists under reconnaissance using cameras on a missile-armed spy plane flying at 20,000 feet, their “Eye in the Sky.”
Three British political leaders and a general (the beloved Alan Rickman in his final live-action performance) are gathered in a handsome war room to oversee the strategy and celebrate the capture. But as the military team prepares to seize the terrorists on the ground, the commandos are discovered to be arming themselves with explosive vests for a massive suicide bombing attack.
As the mission hurriedly shifts from capturing the militants to terminating them with a Hellfire missile, a little Somali immigrant girl enters the kill zone to sell bread. That is, if the command structure can agree whether this is a capture or kill mission. The U.S. drone pilot played by Aaron Paul is troubled about whether he should move his index finger from the joystick to the trigger button. The operation’s main man on the ground, a Kenyan intelligence agent (excellently played by Barkhad Abdi, an Oscar nominee for “Captain Phillips”) is the only personal witness to what a morally murky quagmire the mission has become.
Assassinating the militants could kill the innocent civilian, trading one problem for another. “Revolutions begin through YouTube videos,” the general says. Most troubling for the elected officials, there could be embarrassing political blowback. In the manner of “Dr. Strangelove,” wartime crisis is about to detonate, and it’s unclear who can defuse it. As the countdown timers on each side’s bombs tick down to zero, the allies’ military and government operate like tightrope walkers, tiptoeing at the limit of the legal and tactical downfall a bad decision could trigger. They are small spiders on a big web.
There’s a remarkable level of intelligence at work here. “Eye in the Sky” has the sort of high-tech knowingness about automated weapons hardware that Tom Clancy fans love. The film shows an impressive savvy when it comes to present-day equipment, from the function of a high-flying heavily armed MQ-9 Reaper drone to the blast effect of a Hellfire missile. And it moves into the fast-moving realm of 21st century surveillance equipment, here presented as an amusingly mechanical hummingbird drone and a tiny, camera-rigged mechanical beetle. It’s a world of detached, remote warfare similar to Hood’s 2013 adaptation of the science fiction novel “Ender’s Game.”
Foreign affairs junkies will appreciate the differing attitudes on each side for the squabbling international coalition, much of it presented with grim, cynical wit. When the U.S. secretary of state has to pause a PR-building ping-pong match in Beijing to advise the mission, his response boils down to “Kill them. I’m busy here.” Hibbert’s sharply informed script models the radicalized commandos on fact-based characters, one from England, one from Minnesota. In an era of loud, ugly and fragmented war films, it creates a movie far more thoughtful and challenging than we expect.
While the finale has the film’s single stumble against believability — a man gives the little girl’s mother a pat on the back, a gesture unthinkable in Islamic communities — it also has two of its most haunting images. A moment of surprising kindness comes from the film’s bad guys, while the setup for the war’s next battle elsewhere moves ahead like standard operating procedure. It shows that it’s very difficult to advance your interpretation of good without committing some evil along the way.
Eye in the Sky
☆☆☆☆ out of 5
Cast: Helen Mirren, Aaron Paul, Alan Rickman, Barkhad Abdi.
Director: Gavin Hood.
Running time: 1:42.
Rated: R, for some violent images and language.