Human beings are sometimes better at making super-sophisticated devices than at making simple decisions. This is the moral of the story told in Eye in the Sky, one of the most riveting political thrillers in years.
Directed by Gavin Hood (Tsotsi) and written by Guy Hibbert, the picture is the polar opposite of last year's claustrophobic Good Kill. That film focused on a conflicted Las Vegas-based drone pilot played by Ethan Hawke. This one has a conflicted Las Vegas-based drone pilot, too. But it also features players on three more continents.
Early on, Helen Mirren glances at her snoring husband, gets out of bed and does the darnedest thing: She puts on a uniform and heads to a war room filled with giant screens. She plays Col. Katherine Powell, second in command of a joint U.S.-British operation called Egret, and this is a day she's long awaited.
For years Powell has trailed a radicalized Englishwoman, and now she's ready to carry out the suspect's capture as the latter meets with fellow Al-Shabaab terrorists in Nairobi. The plan calls for drone pilot Steve Watts (Aaron Paul) to perform surveillance from above, providing a wider view as Kenyan forces rush in and round up the bad guys.
Best-laid plans, as they say. Intel reveals that the woman has relocated to a safe house occupied by three of the U.S. president's most wanted Al-Shabaab leaders, plus two new recruits who are being fitted with suicide vests. Powell instant-messages her British counterpart, Lt. Gen. Frank Benson (Alan Rickman in his final on-screen role), to request a change in the mission from "capture" to "kill." He immediately agrees — but there's a catch.
Well, two, actually. A little girl (Aisha Takow) sets up a bread-selling stand near the safe house. And Benson must answer to a gaggle of Brit politicos who fret about bad press from collateral damage, flip-flop on the best course of action and "refer up" the decision. Meanwhile, the clock ticks, and Powell becomes ever more ticked.
This is an exceptionally suspenseful film, and a smartly made one. Eye in the Sky offers a spellbinding look at the latest technology in stages — from macro to micro — to underscore the reality that there's no place or person on the planet that Big Brother can't watch today. In HD.
We start with the cameras on the drone's belly. Their range astonishes. But they can't peek into a window, so a smaller device, a mechanical hummingbird, is employed. And who ya gonna call when the windows are covered and you need eyes inside the house? How about a remote-controlled beetle? Barkhad Abdi (Captain Phillips) does compelling work as a Kenyan soldier who risks his life to guide the flying spy through the front door and onto an overhead perch where it offers a view of everything happening in the home. Talk about bugging a place.
The math is simple: The operatives can send a Hellfire missile through the roof and save thousands of lives. Or they can pass the buck and worry about possible YouTube postings of one child in the wrong place at the wrong time. Unfortunately, most of the officials empowered to make the decision are simple, too.
The tension inherent in watching a group of human beings with the capacity to save lives but not the courage of conviction to act is masterfully deployed throughout. Your knuckles will be white. The edge of your seat will see action for 102 minutes. And you will never think about drones in quite the same way as you did before you saw this timely, electrifying film.