A morally serious dramatization of drone warfare that also happens to be a hell of a nail-biter, Gavin Hood‘s Eye in the Sky imagines the tremendous amount of decision-making firepower required to pull a single trigger. Globe-spanning but stripped far down from Hood’s 2007 Rendition — a more sprawling look at the War on Terror — this picture satisfies fully on entertainment terms without cheapening its real-world concerns. Sure to escape the fate of last year’s TIFF entry Good Kill, an Ethan Hawke drone-pilot drama that drew ambivalent reviews and bombed upon release in June, this film has solid prospects at the multiplex, thanks in part to sturdy performances by topliners Helen Mirren and Aaron Paul.
Given Hood’s last pic, 2013’s Ender’s Game, one might expect an assumption that the distance between a drone and its pilot encourages a videogame mentality, that pilots so far from the field tend not to see their targets as human beings. But instead, Eye offers us a man at the trigger who envisions the human consequences of his actions more fully than any of his superiors.
TIFF program notes comparing the film to Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1964) are startlingly off-target, as it resembles Kubrickian satire only a little more than it does a Bond pic: While the competing authority figures weighing in on the strike sometimes clash in exasperating ways, even the most indecisive or self-interested among them are people of conscience (if not always of good faith). If Eye errs in any direction, it’s in believing that so many layers of power would be able to weigh in on a single strike in such a compressed amount of time.
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Those of us without security clearances will have to guess how much the deck has been stacked in Guy Hibbert‘s script, but the scenario seems plausible given how the strike begins: At a Cabinet Office briefing room in London, assorted civilian officials have joined Lieutenant General Frank Benson (Alan Rickman) to observe what everyone expects to be the capture of at least one person on their Most Wanted list, a British woman who joined forces with Al-Shabaab militants in Nairobi. The American drone being piloted by Steve Watts (Paul) is online only to feed images to British Colonel Katherine Powell (Mirren), who is remotely commanding a team of local troops stationed in a nearby warehouse and ready to capture, not kill, the woman and her conspirators.
But thanks to onsite operatives who are able to fly a tiny drone into the target’s house (in very exciting scenes that, again, we can’t know whether they’re realistic), all assembled can see that two young recruits — one British, one American — are preparing explosive vests for an imminent suicide attack. “Well, this changes things,” Powell says, announcing her intention to order a Hellfire missile to destroy the bombs and bombers before they can get out the door.
Two problems: The politicians on hand to witness a criminal’s capture don’t know if they can endorse her assassination and begin a chain of “referring up” — to Britain’s Foreign Minister, the U.S. Secretary of State and so on — to determine whether it should proceed; and if a bomb is indeed to be dropped on that house, what are the chances it will kill the little girl selling bread on the street?
Well before the drone operators observe the child, the pic has introduced her to us — showing her frolicking with a hula hoop, listening in as her father frets about the religious fanatics in their neighborhood. This emphasis would be shameless if it weren’t necessary: Every other element here nudges the viewer to side with those impatient with the dithering over rules of engagement and legal authority. We need reminding that not everyone within the possible kill zone of that rocket deserves to die.
Watts understands this viscerally, and uses the military’s rules to stall the proposed attack; the moral anguish we see in Paul’s eyes as his delays run their course could not be further from the blitheness popularly associated with remote-controlled killing.
While Paul’s performance gives the drama psychological weight, the efforts of those on the ground to get the girl out of harm’s way provide satisfying action elements. Hood does a fine job here, with Barkhad Abdi (Captain Phillips) racing the clock. But Eye in the Sky‘s heart lies in the calculation of risks and benefits that weighs more on the participants than politicians — or citizens who will hear of the strike on the next day’s news — can realize.
Production companies: Entertainment One Features, Raindog Films
Cast: Helen Mirren, Aaron Paul, Alan Rickman, Barkhad Abdi
Director: Gavin Hood
Screenwriter: Guy Hibbert
Producers: Ged Doherty, Colin Firth, David Lancaster
Executive producers: Xavier Marchand, Benedict Carver, Anne Sheehan, Claudia Bluemhuber, Guy Hibbert, Stephen Wright
Director of photography: Haris Zambarloukos
Production designer: Johnny Breedt
Costume designer: Ruy Filipe
Editor: Megan Gill
Music: Paul Hepker, Mark Kilian
Casting directors: Deborah Aquila, Kate Dowd, Moonyeenn Lee, Tricia Wood
Rated R, 102 minutes