Suspense comes in many different packages, cinematically speaking. Eye in the Sky generates almost unbearable tension by taking a big subject (drone warfare) and narrowing its focus to the decision of whether to order a deadly strike if it means killing an innocent little girl.
I don’t know if this is realistic or not, but it certainly plays that way in Guy Hibbert’s screenplay, masterfully orchestrated by director Gavin Hood, who gave us the Oscar-winning South African film Tsotsi a decade ago. Helen Mirren is outstanding as a no-nonsense British officer in charge of a military operation to rout out terrorists in Kenya. She commands a wide range of men and women, some in the same darkened room as she, surrounded by giant video screens, others spread around the globe. Two of them are highly-trained, highly focused drone pilots (Aaron Paul and Phoebe Fox).
But Mirren must answer to a Lt. General (Alan Rickman) who sits at the head of a table in London with elected officials and politicians. What may seem expedient and even necessary to Mirren, is subject to review and an often mind-numbing amount of international protocol.
Eye in the Sky is the kind of film that forces us to ask ourselves what we would do in this situation. It refuses to let us off the hook. This is a specialty of Hibbert, who wrote the potent and underrated Five Minutes of Heaven (2009), which starred Liam Neeson and James Nesbitt. And, like last year’s Good Kill, with Ethan Hawke, it explores the psychic toll on the pilots who engage in long-range warfare, killing people from a safe distance. To them, this is no video game: they understand exactly what is at stake.
A top-notch supporting cast including Jeremy Northam, Iain Glen, and Barkhad Abdi (from Captain Phillips) make significant contributions to Eye in the Sky…and, of course, it’s bittersweet to see the late Alan Rickman, doing a fine job as always in an atypical role.
Eye in the Sky is engrossing, provocative, and exciting on both an intellectual and visceral level. What more could one ask of a film?