Remote control

High drama in the age of drone warfare

Ends tonight, April 7.Staring Helen Mirren, Aaron Paul, Barkhad Abdi and Alan Rickman. Cinemark 14. Rated R.
Rated 4.0

In the aftermath of the killing of Osama bin Laden, the U.S. government released a “war room” photo of President Obama and other powers that be gathered in a small room to witness the event via satellite feed. The president is watching the video transmission closely, as are all the others, but he is seated on the edge of the group, crouched and leaning forward in his chair.

The others in the picture maintain the obligatory look of dutiful solemnity, but the president’s posture suggests emotions that are a little more complicated—he seems grimly attuned to what is transpiring in the images he’s viewing, but also painfully aware of how tangled and messy and appalling the dynamics of such a moment can, and usually will, be.

Eye in the Sky, a South African movie about a fictional U.S./U.K. drone strike in Kenya, tries to give us fuller access to the conflicted dramas that might play out among figures of authority and responsibility in what has become a kind of warfare by remote control.

Directed by Gavin Hood, with a script by Guy Hibbert, the film is a brisk, paradoxical combination of military procedural, political thriller and morality play. An impending drone strike on a terrorist meeting place in a crowded Kenyan city is the principal source of suspense in Eye in the Sky, but the moral, legal, political and emotional quandaries that arise in the run-up to the strike give the film its most substantial forms of drama.

Helen Mirren plays Col. Katherine Powell, the British officer who requests the strike on the known terrorist figures she’s been tracking for years. The late Alan Rickman plays Lt. Gen. Frank Benson, the British officer who heads a committee of high-level officials who must sign off on Powell’s request. Aaron Paul plays an American lieutenant who “pilots” the eponymous eye and, eventually, the weaponized drone itself, from a bunker in the Nevada desert.

Those three are pivotal figures in an elaborate and increasingly contentious process that brings a foreign minister, a secretary of state and various representatives of the prime minister into the discussion. The suspense builds as the terrorists prepare for action while the policy-makers debate, and it accelerates into full-on melodrama when a neighborhood child sets up a table to sell her mother’s bread just outside the targeted building.

Hibbert’s script sets up enough moral and political quandaries to keep a graduate seminar busy for many weeks to come. But even with quality actors like Mirren and Rickman on hand, the film seems overly thin on the characterizations.

Hood’s direction adroitly maintains coherence and clarity in a narrative that jumps back and forth among four sets of characters in four different locales and succeeds in making the electronic linkages among them part of the story as well.

Perhaps the best sequences in the film are those involving a Kenyan agent (Barkhad Abdi, who excelled as a Somali pirate in Captain Phillips). He, too, is armed with a remote-control surveillance device, but he alone among the anti-terrorist combatants puts his life on the line in the actual targeted locale.