Gavin Hood's wartime thriller Eye in the Sky opens Friday in limited release. It dramatizes the behind-the-scenes calculations that precipitate a drone strike on a Kenyan village where militants have assembled to prepare for a suicide bombing.
If you've seen the trailer, you know the gist. It seems to have been created expressly to probe the "intricate morality of modern warfare." And though it succeeds (often splendidly) in that respect, it can be a tad one-note, even heavy-handed.
"If [the suicide bombers] kill 80 people, we win the propaganda war," says a sweaty foreign minister in a British conference room. "If we kill one, they do." (The line is then repeated immediately to make sure we understand.)
At times, Eye in the Sky has the tinge of political satire, the same hysterical bureaucratic mumbo jumbo of Veep or In the Loop. Decisions here are constantly shuffled up the chain of command. A general (Alan Rickman) and a lieutenant colonel (Helen Mirren) want to "send a hellfire through that roof right now," but red tape conspires to complicate the timeline. The anxious foreign minister passes the buck to the British foreign secretary (Game of Thrones' Iain Glen), who's suffering from food poisoning in Malaysia. He passes the buck to the prime minister, who'd prefer a go-ahead from the U.S. secretary of state, and so on and so forth. The military personnel bang their heads against tables while the politicians weigh potential consequences.
But it's ultimately a drone pilot in Nevada (Breaking Bad's Aaron Paul) who must pull the trigger. And it turns out he's a stickler for rules and regs too. Due to the presence of a Kenyan girl selling bread near the target, he refuses to fire until certain projections are recalibrated. And he (and his "co-pilot," Phoebe Fox) rescue the other Americans in the film, who come off (accurately, one fears) as heartless hawks.
If not for the on-the-ground bravery of a Kenyan agent (the Oscar-nominated Somali actor Barkhad Abdi), the movie might exist at the same remove that its characters do. Around tables and over phones, these leaders debate the merits of hypotheticals, but it's a single Kenyan man who must infiltrate a perilous neighborhood to do the leaders' bidding. By turns tense, wicked and absurd, Eye in the Sky is director Gavin Hood's finest effort since his 2005 jewel Tsotsi. — Sam Allard