Gavin Hood's Eye in the Sky is a taut, real-time thriller that gets at the complex politics of drone warfare as agents on opposite sides of the ocean debate what is and is not acceptable collateral damage given a time-sensitive strike against a terrorist cell. Best known for the Academy Award-winning, South African gang tale Tsotsi, Hood and his writer Guy Hibbert create something that's both intricate and delicate. Ultimately, Eye in the Sky is best described as a fusion of a staged play and spy thriller.
The action takes place in four locations around the globe, with the focus being a terrorist hotbed in Nairobi where a Western convert masterminds the next wave of bloody disruption. In a dark and cavernous military post somewhere in England, Col. Katherine Powell (Helen Mirren) oversees Operation Egret, an effort to extract a young Englishwoman (Lex King) who has joined the Al-Shabaab terrorist group. Elsewhere, Kenyan Special Forces on the ground sit on the ready to move in as a drone — piloted by U.S. serviceman Steve Watts (Aaron Paul) from a cramped military facility in the vast Nevada desert — watches from above. The Brits and Kenyans hang onto Watts's feed while an indigenous informant (Barkhad Abdi) maintains street-level surveillance with short-range animatronic drones launched from a parked van.
It's a basic nab-and-grab gig until the target leaves the house in a shroud so they can't get a positive ID and moves to a well-guarded compound akin to the one Osama bin Laden was taken in. Soon, a larger plot to bomb a public marketplace emerges and the focus of the mission switches from a capture to a kill operation.
In another, more sociable setting in England, Lt. Gen. Frank Benson (Alan Rickman, dignified and to-the-point in one of his final roles) entertains an assemblage of under secretaries on hand to witness the take down. But once the kill order comes down from Col. Powell, and Watts spots a young girl (Aisha Takow) selling bread within the blast range of his hellfire payload, a tangled conundrum of moral and political issues ensues.
For the most part Eye in the Sky is a talky thriller that ebbs and flows as the parties debate whether knowingly taking the life of a child is worth stopping an immediate terrorist attack that is to kill many more. Of the lot, Powell is the most steadfast, but Watts and his co-pilot (Phoebe Fox), originally enlisted to watch and observe, enter a palpable crisis of conscience as the back-and-forth between higher ups wears on.
Tight editing and well-framed shots hold the tension well, as does Hibbert's well-gamed chess match of statesmanship and foreign policy, but overall, it's the performers that shine, especially Paul, whose degree of emotional nuance here will stun those who know him only from Breaking Bad. Meanwhile Abdi, who stole the show from Tom Hanks in Captain Phillips, brings the hi-tech thriller to a fitting zenith.
Early comparisons of Eye in the Sky to Dr. Strangelove are far reaching and underserved. Hood and Hibbert aren't the first to cinematically delve into the ramifications of drone warfare; Andrew Nichol's Good Kill covered similar territory with Ethan Hawke as a pilot in a remote pod charged with high-altitude assassinations. In that film, the lonely process of video-game trigger pulling was the main focus, but that approach ultimately wore thin and failed to amply explore the larger issues at play. Here, Watts and the nuance of his task are offset by Powell's unflinching resolve and the circus of procedure-adhering personalities that Benson labors to corral. Meanwhile, the tense scenes of Abdi's committed street operative interject piquant nuggets of physical action into the sea of political jockeying.
Overall, Hood and Hibbert's film soars more than it floats, mostly by doing an A-plus job of putting the viewer in the seats of the multitude of players and their wide-ranging agendas.
In the end, Eye in the Sky reveals the subtle power of observation. You're like Paul's drone pilot amid the chaos, removed and safe but with the hammer of God at your fingertips. As you sit and wait for the next order, your mind pulls back and your view begins to widen beyond the battlefield.