This is the movie that achieved what Andrew Niccol’s Good kill failed to do last year – introduce drone warfare to a mass audience while asking ethical questions about it and presenting an engaging thriller.
When British army officer Powell (Helen Mirren) gets intelligence that suspected terrorists she’s been searching for have been found in Kenya, she prepares to strike remotely through the chain of command to a pair of drone pilots in Nevada, Steve (Aaron Paul) and Carrie (Phoebe Fox).
But, through the eyes of the drone cameras, a young girl selling bread has set herself up next to the house the British born suspects have converged in, and through their man on the ground, Jama (Barkad Abdi), they use a tiny, beetle-shaped drone camera to see what’s going on inside.
When the spy cam reveals all the trappings of a major attack – vests stuffed with explosives, a video camera to record final words, etc – Powell wants to launch, but the possibility of collateral damage in the girl calls her orders into question and it’s eventually run right up the chain through Powell’s superior General Benson (Alan Rickman in his final role) and ultimately the upper echelons of the UK government, the American drone base commanders roped in as well.
The simple act of whether to fire a missile becomes the basis for a very well-strung thriller as the ethical, military and legal consequences are considered and the buck passed as the danger of letting terrorists perpetrate a major suicide attack grows.
There’s only one scene that contains any real action per se, and that’s when Jama is compromised and has to run for his life through the dusty streets and hide. Other than that Eye in the Sky accomplishes something extremely clever in delivering a tightly wound thriller simply using people in rooms talking on phones, none of them facing any physical peril directly (undoubtedly part of the sociopolitical comment to be made about drone warfare).
And while it’s talking about drones as a social and political issue, it manages to use the action to show you what seems to be one of the most realistic movies about modern warfare in ages. It’s about the machinations of chains of command and communication, the gamification and technology of warfare (in the sequence where they calculate the damage radius and likely mortality rate of the strike using on-screen graphics) and the implications for it all on military policy.
In presenting such a serious topic it’s not even afraid to mix ticking-clock tension with absurdist humour, such as when the British delegation are trying to get hold of the foreign minister at a weapons fair in Asia when he’s become sick from the local food and plays his part in the drama while sitting on the hotel bathroom toilet.
To its endless credit there’s also no clear bad guy (apart from the suicide bombers). Even the MP in the room with Benson and the minister who seems obstructive has a job to do and a perspective to offer, and the script is sophisticated enough to pit legitimate points of view by intelligent people against each other rather than paint anyone as a monster or an idiot to ham-fistedly make you agree with someone else.
And on top of all that there’s some great writing – not just in the military jargon but lines of profundity that really fit into the story rather than jar because some screenwriter was too in love with his own cleverness.
The drama and thrills are also provided by a quite Bond-like, almost glamourous sense of globetrotting as the action cuts between a dusty street crawling with low-tech soldiers, a military installation full of blinking lights and screens, a plush meeting room in a government office and a cold drone pilot cell on an air force base and back again.
There’s very little in the script that doesn’t work and Gavin Hood’s direction confidently conveys a very well constructed script, every piece hanging on every other.
If you really want to find fault, it might be the American who takes his finger off the trigger when the girl enters the likely kill zone, contravening a direct order while doing so. Many in the military will tell you it’s actually in the culture of the American armed forces in the post-War on Terror world to blow away anything moving at the slightest encouragement.