Drone warfare is one of the more unignorable debating points of our age – one with such urgent, palpable, life-or-death application that cinema is beginning to wake up to it. Featuring Alan Rickman’s last screen performance as a hawkish British general, Gavin Hood’s air-strike thriller Eye in the Sky isn’t the first film to tackle this – there was last April's Ethan Hawke-starrer Good Kill, which focused more on the psychological fallout of point-and-click soldiering than the impact on the ground.
Lasering in with its sights, Eye in the Sky gives us a single theatre of war – a shantytown in Nairobi, where suicide bombers may be ensconced – and runs the numbers. Guy Hibbert’s punchy, almost real-time script begins with British army colonel Katharine Powell (a camo-clad Helen Mirren, giving us a stern military variation on Jane Tennison) calling the shots. A dissident she’s been tracking for years is pinpointed to this one hut, which is uncomfortably close to various innocent civilians going about their day.
Captain Phillips’s Barkhad Abdi plays a Somali anti-terror agent on the ground, tasked with getting close enough to send in a spy camera, attached to a remote-controlled “insect drone”, and thereby allowing his colleagues to have a literal fly on the wall. The critical moment nears. And, just then, a young Kenyan girl sets out her bread stall within feet of the blast radius.
The arguments – to strike, or not to strike – zing back and forth in Westminster, where Lt Gen Frank Benson (Rickman) more or less backs Mirren’s view that the risk is worth taking. The defence department need legality reinforced, pushing this decision up the chain of command.
Alas, the Foreign Secretary (Iain Glen) is away in Singapore, and in a subplot of rather dicey comic charge, is having to deal with an attack of IBS at the same time. More satirically effective is the swift call made to the US Secretary of State, in mid-ping-pong with the Chinese – his instant hot take being bafflement that anyone hesitated or even bothered him.
Shot largely in Hood’s native South Africa, this is a better film than either his manipulative,Oscar-winning Tsotsi (2005) or the confused and underpowered Rendition (2007), which confronted the equally hot-button topic of the CIA abducting terror suspects.
Here the plotting is clean, and the ethical quagmire mapped out clearly. Almost too clearly. Everyone involved has multiple agendas: careers and reputations are at stake, public culpability and personal guilt need to be assuaged. Breaking Bad’s Aaron Paul, as an American drone pilot, comes close to disobeying Mirren’s direct orders so that he can at least feel he’s doing the right thing.
If hearing Mirren bark dialogue along the lines of “Only two Hellfires? Where are my GBU12s?” sounds like your idea of fun, there’s a fair bit of that, even though her character is just one piece of the puzzle here, rather than queen bee. This is the rare vehicle where her brusque authority feels subservient to the script, rather than the other way round.
Scraps of characterisation are dropped in the urgent fray: picking up a talking doll for his daughter en route to work, there's a final Rickman moment for the ages when he reads out its features (“You will hear her babbling as soon as it is beddy-byes??”).
Beyond these sideshows and plenty of shrewd work from the cast, the film’s serious intent is honourable, and the construction pretty solid. In homing in on the fate of a single innocent child, it wants to humanise a debate which could easily get lost in statistics and probabilities.
It makes us well aware of this on screen: the risk assessments which keep being crunched and recrunched to boost the legal case involve point-and-click fudging of the blast radius to make “the numbers work”, when the only number that counts is how many loaves of bread this girl still has left to shift before she gets out of the danger-zone.
If there’s a downside, it’s that you come away feeling everything has been tidily debated, diligently turned over, to the point where there’s not a great deal left to think about. The truth is, drone warfare would be a good deal less troubling if we could believe this level of weepy agonising was involved among the personnel conducting it. Eye in the Sky is a tick-tock suspense exercise as well as a neat little ethical echo chamber, a plea for reason in a world exploding too vigorously to give it the time of day.