A UK-based international military operation is underway to apprehend terrorists in Kenya when new intel comes to light, escalating the mission from capture to kill. As ever-higher levels of Government become involved, a further complication enters the mix; a nine-year old girl has started selling bread in the kill zone.
It takes an enormous amount of skill to turn rooms of talking heads into tense drama, and you wouldn’t immediately think of the director of the bad Wolverine movie as the man to do so. And yet Gavin Hood has managed to craft something very special in Eye in the Sky – an edge-of-seat film that forces you to question and re-question exactly where you stand morality-wise with this new, real-world approach to war and security.
Colonel Katherine Powell (Helen Mirren, in perfect casting) is running a Kenyan operation from the UK, co-ordinating a drone piloted by Steve Watts (Aaron Paul) from Las Vegas and boots-on-the-ground operative Jama Farah (Barkhad Abdi). When they discover that the terrorists under surveillance are planning an imminent attack using suicide vests, the mission is immediately escalated by Powell from capture to kill, eliminating many of the top list terrorists in a single swipe. And then the young Alia dares to saunter along, setting up her bread stall right outside the terrorist’s compound and her proximity to the kill zone raises legal and morality issues of a level that no one in charge, it would seem, is prepared to face. Both Powell and Lieutenant General Frank Benson (Alan Rickman), in Whitehall with Government ministers, are keen (too keen?) to accept this collateral damage; many, many more innocent lives would be saved as a result. But these ministers are made of weaker stuff, and insist on it being ‘referred-up’ thus absolving themselves of both responsibility and culpability, much to the frustration of the military.
There are many wonderful little grace notes in Eye in the Sky that give us a full and complete look at the characters. General Benson (Rickman in his last screen role, as good as ever. What sublime autumnal roles have been taken from us with his passing?) buying the wrong doll for a granddaughter that could just as easily be Alia; Powell bullying an operative to get the kill estimate of the girl under the ‘magic 45%’; incompetent Foreign Secretary James Willett (a wonderful Iain Glen) quite literally shitting himself as he dithers over making a decision. And the real-world realities of drone warfare are laid out for us, forcing us to ask, what would we do? The simple fact that any decision is impossible is the beating heart of the film, and as the clock ticks and Alia sells her bread and the terrorists prepare to leave, you’re willing someone, anyone, to make both the choices of releasing the missile and not firing. Save Alia or save many innocents in the coming days. But not both.
That the film doesn’t shy away from an ending that’s not wanted but is probable is testament to the integrity of Hood and the screenplay by Guy Hibbert. And most here are at the top of their game. Only Aaron Paul, still searching for that big, decent role to capitalise on his Breaking Bad fame, is underused, but even then he can convey more emotion with his teary eyes than most.
This is, quite simply, cinema at it’s best and most fulfilling. Tense, thrilling with well-executed action beats, it also asks questions to which there are no real answers, forcing you to think, and think deep. You don’t get that from Batman vs Superman. At one point Alan Rickman – my God, he’ll be missed – asks a hands-off Governmental lacky how she can possibly question what it’s like to go into battle as she sits there with her tea and biscuits. And as we sit there with our coke and popcorn, he may as well be looking straight at us.