By Chaz Lipp
Eye in the Sky pulls off the impressive feat of offering maximum suspense with minimal action. Director Gavin Hood (Ender’s Game) has crafted a war film based on the decision-making process. The international effort to take out a terrorist cell in Nairobi mostly involves military personnel contemplating the drone-based deployment of a guided missile. Given the busy neighborhood surroundings, loaded with merchants and children, the strike inevitably risks collateral damage. At a brisk 102 minutes, not a minute is wasted. The ensemble cast, led by Helen Mirren as British Colonel Katherine Powell, and an exceptionally thoughtful screenplay (by Guy Hibbert) make Eye in the Sky one of the most gripping thrillers in recent memory.
The focus here is specifically on the mission at hand—not the larger context of the terrorists being targeted. We learn that one, Susan Danford (Lex King), is a British national who joined the network. Colonel Powell has been tracking her for years, absolutely bent on capturing her. Danford has been located at a specific house, with positive I.D.’s made via a beetle-sized flying drone operated by man-in-the-field Jama Farah (Barkhad Abdi of Captain Phillips). The situation changes from a ‘capture’ to a ‘kill’ mission when the mini-drone reveals Danford’s fanatical colleagues are preparing for a suicide bombing. U.S. drone pilot Steve Watts (Aaron Paul) is tasked with deploying the weapon, even as townsfolk go about their daily business in the immediate surroundings.
What follows is an extended game of ‘pass the buck’ as British military and government personnel, one by one, insist on “referring up” for clearance to escalate the mission. Time is of the essence—suicide vests are being loaded with explosives—as Lieutenant General Frank Benson (Alan Rickman, excellent in his final onscreen role) awaits a final decision. He’s in a boardroom with a bunch of bureaucrats, growing impatient as no one feels confident giving the green light. For Benson, the decision is clear: if the terrorists’ suicide mission proceeds, scores are likely to die. In his mind, that outweighs the risk of a much lesser number of deaths in the blast radius of the drone strike.
All sides of the issue are carefully presented, adding depth to a story that could’ve easily been lopsided. Drone pilot Watts agonizes over his orders when a bread-pedaling child, Alia (Aisha Takow), sets up shop directly outside the terrorists’ house. Alia could’ve easily been treated as a nameless symbol of the risks of modern warfare, but she’s treated as a real character. We meet her parents, who are struggling to educate her in a society that aims to keep women ignorant. What could’ve easily just been a “cute kid in peril,” almost a prop, becomes someone whose safety we care deeply about. Though the ‘should we or shouldn’t we’ debate is sometimes a bit too on the nose, the details matter in Eye in the Sky.
Eye in the Sky Images: Entertainment One