“Eye in the Sky” is a truly great suspense thriller about drone warfare. Put those things together – the power of the movie experience and the currency of the movie’s subject matter – and you’ve got a film deserving of ballyhoo to the skies.
I’m using the word “great” advisedly here. One of the better movies of the past few years – Andrew Niccol’s “Good Kill” from 2014 – also was about the implication of the new surgical accuracy of drone warfare and the pilot charged with pinpointing hell with hellish exactitude and with visibility that technology never permitted before.
“Eye in the Sky” is an even better film. The suspense is as acute as that of any thriller I’ve seen in years. But it’s the particular brilliance of the film that every bit of that suspense serves the 21st-century moral quandaries that the film is about.
Cameras aren’t just up in the air looking down from satellites and drones, they are tiny and in the middle of the action we see in “Eye in the Sky.” The most important camera passing along “intel”- before the action in “Eye in the Sky” is, in fact, successfully disguised as a flying beetle. It’s perched on a rafter inside a house in Kenya watching a suicide bomber as he’s attached to enough explosives in his vest to kill 80 or more people in a shopping mall.
The pictures that “beetle” sends thousands of miles away (to London and Nevada) are the key to an agonizing X-ray portrait of the morality of drone warfare.
This is “us” now. It’s what “we” do, i.e. our representatives in the military. It’s not some far-off “them.” The decisions being made are done so on a slicing, razor-sharp morality. Do you explore a specific target thousands of miles away and save 80-plus innocent lives (as well as “take out” a renowned master terrorist on the international most wanted list) even if you know that an adorable little Kenyan girl selling her mother’s bread to their neighbors may be blown to smithereens?
That’s the kind of quandary people in the “eye in the sky” have to ponder.
This is what warfare is like when bombing is “surgical” – when you can see computer screens full of potential victims even when they are adorable little girls who have to play with their hula hoops in secret, lest the carriers of Sharia prohibition discover such impicious childhood indulgences in Western decadence.
It is for thrillers as razor sharp as this that the word taut came to be a cliche. Suspense doesn’t get much more taut than this in a thriller.
And that’s exactly why there is a weird and ultra-dark humor about watching these events unfold.
It is literally true that we are watching the run-up to a key drone strike against a very specific part of a very specific house in a crowded Kenyan neighborhood. We’re watching that beetle camera and the image of a suicide bomber being armed. We’re also watching the camera’s operator outside the house, as he hastily pretends to sell plastic buckets in the neighborhood market.
But most important, we are watching British and American military hierarchy thousands of miles away making the decisions – Helen Mirren as an American colonel pushing it hard, the late Alan Rickman as a British general one continent closer to the target.
Aaron Paul (“Breaking Bad”) plays the American soldier who, at the most dramatic possible moment, breaks “good” here, i.e. refuses to pull the drone trigger at the last second because, quite literally, there is a cute little girl selling her mother’s bread just a few feet from dead center of a kill zone.
What that sets up is a roundelay of CYA – a whole lineup of people who have escalating degrees of authority, all of whom pass the buck to someone at a higher level of command. All of them want to make sure that when the foulness hits the fan, they’re not soiled.
We’re watching a bureaucracy that is somehow trying desperately to be humane and cowardly at the same time. It is diabolically funny as you watch at the same time that there is absolutely nothing funny happening at all.
Under the pinpoint direction of South African director Gavin Hood, Guy Hibbert’s script has set up the predicament so brilliantly that we are rooting for something to happen for which an entirely new kind of shame has entered the world of armed conflict.
The risk is awful. And the whole excruciating moral question is laid out with savage suspense and humor and, ultimately, profundity by the film.
To do what this film does, everything has to work with the kind of perfect efficiency you’d find in an actual drone strike.
And that’s what the film does. These performers are ideal, every single one of them from Mirren as the U.S. Army Colonel to Rickman as the weary, controlled general trying to get his politicians to sign off on the action, to Aisha Tokow as the sweet-faced little girl whose ultimate hell on earth is to be a perfect innocent at the exact wrong place at the worst possible time.
Again, a truly great suspense thriller. It frays your nerves while you watch.
And frays your conscience and your compassion when it’s over.
Terrific in every way.
“Eye in the Sky”
4 stars (out of four)
Starring: Helen Mirren, Alan Rickman, Aaron Paul, Jeremy Northam
Director: Gavin Hood
Running time: 102 minutes
Rating: R for violent images, some rough language and intense suspense.
Lowdown: A drone strike against key terrorists is delayed by civilians in the kill zone.