Omniscient high-definition views from above have done nothing to penetrate the fog of war in Gavin Hood's drone drama "Eye in the Sky."
It's a lean, Lumet-like thriller that puts the moral calculus of drone warfare in its crosshairs. Playing out compellingly in real time, a strike against Somali terrorists in Nairobi is plotted by the hawkish, U.K.-based Col. Katherine Powell (Helen Mirren), whose operation involves pilots, politicians and military command in various digitally linked remote locations, from the boardroom to the toilet.
Drones have begun to reshape the war movie, and will doubtless continue to proliferate on our screens just as they have over Middle Eastern skies. "Eye in the Sky" follows last year's very solid "Good Kill," starring Ethan Hawke as a drone pilot based in Las Vegas. Director Andrew Niccol's aim was principally about the psychological toll such disconnected battles take on its far-removed soldiers.
Hood more thoroughly utilizes the new perspectives drones afford to filmmakers. While much of the it is composed of faces in front of computer screens, some of the film's most remarkable images come from the view of a hovering drone or — most impressively — a remote-controlled beetle that flutters right into the suspects' lair, alighting on the rafters to provide a staggering close-up.
With such supreme powers of surveillance, Powell and her colleagues (including the ever-droll Alan Rickman, in one of his last performances, as a British general) have become accustomed to a previously unmatched level of certainty — or so they would like to think.
The mission is to apprehend a handful of highly ranked terrorists, but when the trio — two radicalized British nationals and an American — are seen preparing vests for a suicide attack, the plan is ratcheted up from "capture" to "kill."
The clash of "Eye in the Sky" isn't on the battlefield but in the chain-of-command debate over the rules of engagement that pingpongs around politicians and lawyers who are pressured by Powell and Rickman's general to give their OK. The collateral damage calculations and emotional stakes are changed significantly when a young girl sits outside the walls of the target to sell bread.
An American pilot (Aaron Paul), tasked to bring "hellfire" on the target, lays off the trigger, and numerous levels of nervous government officials "refer up" the decision to their superiors while an agent on the ground (Barkhad Abdi, of "Captain Phillips") attempts to chase the girl away.
The plotting in Guy Hibbert's screenplay, along with the quick cutting of Hood (the South African filmmaker of "Tsotsi" and a "X-Men," who previously dove into the subject of CIA interrogation in 2007's "Rendition"), push the movie's intensity, making "Eye in the Sky" more riveting than preachy.
The film might have hit home more if the tick-tock of its plot allowed us to better know its characters, who sometimes come off as mere mouthpieces of different philosophies of modern warfare. But "Eye in the Sky" is nevertheless a compelling case of how moral precision doesn't necessarily match technical accuracy.
What: "Eye in the Sky." Directed by Gavin Hood. A Bleecker Street release
With: Helen Mirren, Alan Rickman, Aaron Paul, Barkhad Abdi
Star rating (out of four):
MPAA rating: R — restricted; under 17 requires accompanying parent or adult guardian — for "some violent images and language"
Running time: 1 hour 42 minutes
Playing at: Beacon Cinema (Pittsfield) and Triplex Cinema (Great Barrington)