The subject of drone warfare has been addressed by films before, but never quite like this. "Eye in the Sky," a new military thrilled directed by Gavin Hood, neatly sets up a familiar moral dilemma - British and American forces have the opportunity drop a bomb and kill a collection of dangerous terrorists, but in all likelihood the bomb will also innocents. What's novel about "Eye in the Sky" is the presentation of all the players and the information that they have access to. The military, operating on different continents, are only able to see the situation though the camera in the drone, looking down from miles above, and a tiny surveillance camera that an operative sneaks into the house. However, the audience is given a fuller picture.
Colonel Katherine Powell (Helen Mirren) of the British armed forces is in command of an international mission intended to capture several members of an extremist terrorist group who are meeting in Nairobi, Kenya. The initial plan is to use ground forces, but when the terrorists change locations and begin preparations for what appears to be an imminent attack, the situation changes and only a drone bombing is considered a feasible method of stopping them. Doubts are raised by the drone pilot, Steve Watts (Aaron Paul), targeting tech Carrie Gershon (Phoebe Fox), and by Powell's superior, General Frank Benson (Alan Rickman), who is observing the mission with members of the British government, Brian Woodale (Jeremy Northam) and Angela Northman (Monica Dolan). There are legal, political, and ethical considerations to using the drone attack, especially in the middle of a civilian population. The situation becomes even more intense when a little girl, Alia (Aisha Takow), starts selling bread in the street outside the house, directly in the predicted blast radius.
The tension in "Eye in the Sky" is ratcheted up slowly, but believably. Delays are caused as decisions have to be run up the chain of command, and officials need to be tracked down and informed. Confirming the identities of the terrorists targets requires a local undercover agent, Jama Farah (Barkhad Abdi), to sneak into a restricted area, where his ability to act is severely limited. As the Westerners in the UK and US argue thousands of miles away, their sophisticated surveillance technology ensures that they know exactly what's going on in Kenya from second to second. However, it also underscores how little control they really have over the situation despite so much power at their disposal. There are a few characters who make grand, broad statements about morality and ethics, but it's clear that the situation is a murky one, and there are no right answers. There are, however, very real consequences, and no one is in a hurry to take the responsibility.
At times "Eye in the Sky" reminded me of "Lebanon," a 2009 movie where we see everything through the gunsight of a tank during the Lebanon war. Through the drone camera, we can only see the people from overhead, their features barely visible. Alia appears on the military's screens only as a tiny red dot in her headscarf, perhaps making her easier for them to write off. Gavin Hood, however, refuses to let the audience do the same. The movie spends many of its opening scenes acquainting us with Alia's life in detail - her home, her parents, and the less-than-ideal environment she's growing up in. And without her saying a word, she serves as a devastating counterargument to the way that the Western characters are using the drone.
It was a canny decision to cast well-known and well-liked actors including Helen Mirren and Alan Rickman as the ones in charge of the mission, keeping them sympathetic in spite of their actions being so morally troubling. Mirren is especially good as the single-minded Colonel Powell, who uses every ounce of authority she has to try and steamroller all doubters and get the job done. From a few unguarded reactions, she clearly does have a heart, but if the film has a villain, it's her. Or maybe she's the hero - it's awfully hard to tell. This is also the first significant film role I've seen Aaron Paul in, and he's note perfect as the inexperienced American drone pilot who does all he can to buy Alia more time.
I'm a little conflicted about the way the film operates as an action thriller, how many of the close calls and moments of suspense are dramatically played up in the same way you'd see in a typical "Die Hard" movie for the audience's enjoyment. And I have to say it's a really effective thriller. However, I think that the way the film ultimately subverts the formula is very strong. Anyone who comes into this movie expecting a typical dumb action flick is going to be sorely disappointed, or at the very least conflicted. For those of us who want something more substantive to chew on, though, it delivers.