Gavin Hood's Eye in the Sky is the kind of procedural thriller that clears your head while simultaneously keeping you in breathless suspense. Guy Hibbert's compelling script with its taut intelligence gets into a great subject here: drone warfare. What Eye in the Sky sets out to unravel with sharp slivers of nuance is the moral ambivalence felt by those who execute high-tech strikes against Islamic extremists. Operating from a distance and using drone aircraft and sophisticated camera surveillance, pilots, soldiers and politicians get pulled into the queasy voyeurism of a video battleground. They may be in complete control of the hardware to reduce the collateral damage of innocent human life, but we see that people will always unwittingly stray into the target area. Eye in the Sky skillfully maps out their dramatic strategy, while implicating us as witnesses, but the picture is about our inability to control human behaviour – no matter how sophisticated the technology is. Unlike Hood's earlier Rendition (2007), which focused on the CIA's practice of extraordinary rendition, Eye in the Sky doesn't craft its tale so that every little detail falls neatly into place. Rendition was so concerned about being on the right side of every issue that the audience barely had to break a sweat picking sides. By the end, Eye in the Sky brings comfort and certainty to no one.
When Colonel Katherine Powell (Helen Mirren) wakes up one morning to discover that one of her colleagues has been murdered by the Al-Shabaab terrorist group, she's confident that they can finally capture its high command – which includes a radicalized British national – in a safehouse in Nairobi, Kenya. Pulling together a multi-national team bound together by various video feeds – including an aerial surveillance pilot Steve Watts (Aaron Paul) and his colleague, Carrie Gershon (Phoebe Fox), an undercover Kenyan field agent Jama Farah (Barkhad Abdi), Lieutenant General Frank Benson (Alan Rickman), who is supervising the mission from London with members of the British government as witnesses, as well as a facial recognition team in Pearl Harbor to identify human targets – Powell plans a capture mission. But when the terrorists shift locations to a house in a densely populated neighbourhood of poor Kenyans, she comes to discover that the terrorists have massive explosives to carry out two suicide bombings with civilian targets. Given the implications of what the team witnesses, the mission quickly turns from capture into kill. But in order to carry out the execution, Powell and Benson have to run the protocol up the chain of command to determine the rules of engagement. (The film, which was shot in South Africa, was originally titled, The Kill Chain.) As various politicians and legal analysts weigh the options, time continues to run out. Complicating the decision making is also the presence of a young Muslim girl, Alia (Aisha Takow), who sells bread every day in the vicinity of the targeted house. Eye in the Sky raises the question of whether saving the life of the innocent girl is worth risking the lives of many innocent civilians if the suicide bombers are allowed to escape.
While some might feel that Hood and Hibbert are stacking the deck by using the life of an endangered child as moral weight in their drama, it is not employed as a sentimental device. A similar scene in Spielberg's Munich, where Israeli agents are attempting to assassinate a Black September terrorist when his young daughter suddenly appears, also delved into the same murky moral ground where the carrying out of a mission risks not only innocent lives, but the lives of those who perpetrate the strike. Eye in the Sky likewise doesn't vilify or extol the characters in order to appease our blood lust as many action dramas tend to do. Whether it's a politician worrying about public perception, or military brass like Powell weighing the consequences, the calculated decision to launch the rocket is not one that doesn't come with a cost. Unlike the Cold War thrillers of a previous era, Gavin Hood also realizes that the stakes are now dramatically different. Where it was fully understood in the past that (despite the ideological differences between the East and West) nobody was driven by the nihilistic charge of blowing up the planet, the enemies of the West today aren't concerned about the fate of this world – it's the next world. Since the fall of Communism and the rise of Islamic fundamentalism, the introduction of the suicide bomber has brought an apocalyptic element that goes against the grain of liberal humanism and Communist authoritarianism. Which is why the characters in Eye in the Sky have to face new fears while being dragged into the same dystopian pit as the murderous zealots they're trying to eliminate.
Besides the smartly drawn script, the performers beautifully flesh out the ideas in it. Helen Mirren draws on her commanding voice with all the authority it carries, but spices it with the same bits of impatient irony Judi Densch used as Q in Casino Royale and Skyfall. Alan Rickman, in one of his last screen roles, underplays his droll delivery to convey the notion that not all military leaders are buffoons or psychotics (as many satires have attempted to convey). Barkhad Abdi (who played the lead pirate in Captain Phillips) gives a warm, expansive performance as an operative who counts on those eyes in the sky, but he is also at the mercy of them since he is the one on the ground. Cinematographer Haris Zambarloukos (Venus, Cinderella) follows the action from above and below with smooth, quick takes as if moving to the anxious rhythms of our breathing. If there's anything missing from Eye in the Sky, it's that the picture doesn't go deep enough to scrutinize the subject matter. Rather than dramatize the necessity of drone warfare, the movie becomes more interested in the impact it has on those whose concepts of warfare were shaped in a different era and conducted under different rules. (The only truly phony device is in the obvious symbolic use of a doll that Powell purchases for his granddaughter.) In every other way, though, Eye in the Sky is a top-drawer modern tragedy. With a devastating proficiency, it demonstrates how technological perfection can never mask the endless nightmares that warfare produces.
– Kevin Courrier is a freelance writer/broadcaster, film critic and author (Dangerous Kitchen: The Subversive World of Zappa, Randy Newman's American Dreams, 33 1/3 Captain Beefheart's Trout Mask Replica, Artificial Paradise: The Dark Side of The Beatles Utopian Dream). Courrier teaches part-time film courses to seniors through the LIFE Institute at Ryerson University in Toronto and other venues. His forthcoming book is Reflections in the Hall of Mirrors: American Movies and the Politics of Idealism.