Starring Helen Mirren and the late Alan Rickman, this timely British thriller about drone warfare turns out to be a real nail-biter. It begins in a Cabinet office in London, where Lt. Gen. Frank Benson (Rickman) and several officials realize they’ve ascertained the exact location in Nairobi, Kenya, where several people on their Most Wanted list have convened, including a radicalized British woman with an Al-Shabaab militant.
The titular ‘Eye in the Sky’ is an American drone, piloted by Steve Watts (Aaron Paul) from a bunker in Nevada, while British Colonel Katherine Powell (Mirren) remotely commands a team of local Kenyan troops, hidden in a nearby warehouse, ready to capture, not kill, the woman and her conspirators.
But when an onsite operative, Jama Farah (Barkhad Abdi), flies a tiny drone, resembling a bug, into the target’s house, it feeds back pictures of terrorists’ preparations for an imminent suicide attack, perhaps at a crowded shopping mall, like before.
“Well, this changes things,” Powell notes, recommending that a Hellfire missile immediately destroy the building and its occupants.
Problem is: the politicians are wary of endorsing a bombing; they’re particularly concerned about collateral damage, since there’s a little girl, Alia (Aisha Takow), selling fresh-baked bread nearby.
So, one after another, they “refer up” to Britain’s Foreign Minister, the U.S. Secretary of State, etc. Stalling makes the military impatient but sympathy has been aroused for the appealing youngster who, unwittingly, is directly in harm’s way.
Thoughtfully scripted by Guy Hibbert and tautly directed by Gavin Hood (“Tsotsi,” “Rendition”), it’s a powerfully restrained examination of the ethics and moral quandaries involved in remote-controlled warfare.
While Helen Mirren is ruthlessly formidable, perhaps most memorable moments come from Barkhad Abdi, the Oscar-nominated Somali pirate who confronted Tom Hanks in “Captain Phillips.”
And it’s Alan Rickman who utters the concluding pronouncement, “Never tell a soldier that he doesn’t know the cost of war.”
On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “Eye in the Sky” is an edge-of-your-seat suspenseful 7, delineating the new rules of engagement.