Eye in the Sky ***|****

Helen Mirren in Eye in the Sky
Helen Mirren in Eye in the Sky

Sharp and timely, the international military thriller Eye in the Sky is a thoughtful and tactful examination of the ethical grey areas that plague the potential efficiency of modern drone warfare. It focuses narrowly on one event –one decision, really– that could have been an ancillary plot point in another war movie but instead is given the attention that it deserves to explore the decision-making behind it. This is exceptionally patient and clear-headed storytelling from director Gavin Hood, who has graduated from the humdrum Hollywood fare of X-Men Origins: Wolverine and Ender’s Game to create a purpose-driven work that’s actually worthy of his talent.

The story centers around a capture mission of high-level terrorists in Kenya that is headed up by British Colonel Katherine Powell (Helen Mirren) in London and by Lieutenant Frank Benson (Alan Rickman) in a nearby briefing room with England’s top cabinet members. The global operation is also aided in real time by the aerial surveillance of drone pilot Steve Watts (Aaron Paul) from Nevada and image analyst Carrie Gershon (Phoebe Fox) from Hawaii. When the situation proves to be more volatile than previously expected and a new potential causality enters the picture, the decision to potentially utilize a drone missile is debated both by those participating in the mission and by other seemingly unaffiliated parties as well.

Hood does an incredible job of taking these individual scenes of people communicating and working together from around the world and building it into one cohesive story that builds logically upon the small actions of each character. From watching the film, you would probably never guess that the four lead actors never actually met one another face to face during production but it speaks to the kind of narrative fluidity that’s on display as the tension builds. Even as more and more bureaucratic figures are brought into the picture, we never lose focus on what’s at stake and why this scenario proves to be so difficult to resolve.

With some exceptions, the script by Guy Hibbert is deft in dealing with these complex moral and political issues at hand without making the characters come across as shallow billboards for the beliefs that they represent. The concepts of collateral damage and greater good are routinely invoked but both sides of the arguments are presented fairly without the film giving us easy solutions to side with. One such moment occurs when Powell presses one of her subordinates to manipulate the calculations of a hypothetical attack; the moral conflict between the characters in that moment is palpable and representative of the challenging decisions that are made every day by military personnel.

Not only is the film thought-provoking but it’s also breathlessly paced and entertaining even at the surface level as a nail-biting thrill ride with plenty of small incidents that build towards larger consequences. Because the covert mission is in such a fragile state, even minor events like a veil covering the face of one of the targets or a cell phone running out of battery can affect all of the players involved in unexpected ways. Eye in the Sky is a breathtaking look at military intelligence in action and the technical evolution behind the battles yet to come.