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Eye in the Sky is not the first movie about drone warfare, but it might be the best. In recent years, Hollywood has shoehorned drones into nearly every blockbuster action flick—from the Robocop remake to Star Trek to Captain America: The Winter Soldier—as a shortcut to political relevance. What those films exploit, Eye in the Sky thoroughly examines. Gavin Hood’s film is a sharply observed political thriller that should inspire moral reckoning among partisans on both sides of this contentious issue.
It opens mundanely, with each character introduced at the start of their work day. British Col. Katherine Powell (Helen Mirren) grabs a cup of coffee and receives instructions to monitor a house in Kenya where high-level terrorists may be staying. She oversees an American drone operator (Aaron Paul), working from a room on an Air Force base in Las Vegas (the same location featured in 2015’s dreadful Good Kill). His drone can’t see inside the house, so he defers to Kenyan agent Jama (Barkhad Abdi), who uses micro-technology—drones disguised as a hummingbird and a horsefly—and discovers that the terrorists inside the house are planning an attack. The decision to turn this surveillance mission into a strike falls on a team of British government bureaucrats led by Lt. Col. Frank Benson (Alan Rickman).
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Throughout the film, Hood cuts quickly between these players, building momentum to a thrilling pace. With the characters frequently communicating via video conference, they all seem to be in the same room, and Eye in the Sky even takes on the intimate qualities of an Information Age chamber play. The routine strike becomes complicated by the presence of a civilian girl within the casualty circle. As military and political figures weigh the cost of one civilian life against the untold deaths prevented by killing the terrorists, the filmmakers zero in on the void of leadership, with no one willing to risk the legal and political ramifications should things go wrong. The onus of responsibility gets passed round and round, with the machinations reaching a comic pitch that entertains, while shedding light on the realities of warfare in the modern era.
Rickman plays no small role in the film’s success. It’s the late actor’s last dance, and he has found an ideal partner in Hood, who employs Rickman’s gift for subtlety and British droll for maximum impact. His tossed-off delivery of an “Oh, for God’s sake” or “Well, this changes things” is a pin that expertly punctures the tension that periodically fills the room as his team faces one challenge after another; it turns what could be a tense political drama into the sharpest satire this side of Dr. Strangelove.
It’s so riveting that it’s easy to miss what an impossible achievement Eye in the Sky really is. Guy Hibbert’s screenplay is a masterclass in empathy, offering a wide variety of thoughtful, well-reasoned perspectives on this complex political issue. Most impressively, Hibbert doesn’t judge or favor any one position, instead giving both sides equal value and time.
Sure, a partisan could watch it and find plenty of evidence to support their position and disregard the rest. But the open-minded among us are sure to learn something new and have our views challenged. In these politically divisive times, that’s a small miracle.
Eye in the Sky opens Friday at Landmark’s E Street Cinema, Bethesda Row, and Angelika Film Center & Cafe at Mosaic.