Finger on the trigger

“Can’t you hear how no-nonsense I am?”

“Can’t you hear how no-nonsense I am?”

Rated 5.0

It’s hard to imagine a more perfectly crafted movie coming down the pike this year than Eye in the Sky. It’s the kind of white-knuckle thriller that the makers of dreck like London has Fallen can only dream of. At the same time, it uses a simple situation that escalates almost—but never quite—out of control as a means to examine the morality of drone warfare and the cold calculations of collateral damage.

Helen Mirren stars as no-nonsense Col. Katherine Powell, in charge of Operation Egret, the planned capture of a British woman who has become a radicalized Muslim and joined the Al-Shabaab militants in Nairobi. From from her command post near London, Powell coordinates a special-ops team on the ground in Nairobi and a surveillance drone operated from Nevada by two U.S. Army specialists (Aaron Paul and Phoebe Fox). Meanwhile, her superior, Lt. Gen. Frank Benson (the late Alan Rickman, reminding us how much we’ll miss him), is among a group gathered in the office of Britain’s defense minister (Jeremy Northam) to watch the capture in real time.

Just as the operation is about to launch, the target woman and her associates leave their original meeting place. The American drone, 20,000 feet overhead, traces them to another house in an Al-Shabaab neighborhood where an attempted capture would spark a massive firefight. Before aborting, Powell wants a look inside this new location. An agent on the ground (Barkhad Abdi) sends another drone, disguised as a flying beetle, into the rafters of the house, where the occupants are seen preparing suicide vests. Clearly, a major terrorist strike is intended, and Powell’s objective changes from capture to kill, but hundreds of innocent lives may be at stake. The situation for the military becomes complicated and frustrating as layers of bureaucrats weigh in on both the legal and political implications. The matter is “referred up,” first to the State Department in Washington, then the British foreign minister on a diplomatic junket in Singapore and the American secretary of state on a similar trip in Beijing.

Then another complication: A little girl (Aisha Takow) sets up a stand selling bread in the street just outside the target house but inside the destructive radius of the proposed strike, and the question of abort-or-proceed becomes even more urgent.

Does this sort of debate really go on with every proposed drone strike? Is surveillance equipment even this good? Maybe nobody without security clearance really knows, but it hardly matters. The premise is enough to dramatize the debate, and writer Guy Hibbert develops it in all its layers; every side of the question gets articulate expression. Director Gavin Hood juggles the globe-spanning conversation expertly, without so much as a wasted frame. (It’s remarkable how few of the characters actually speak to each other in the same room.)

Eye in the Sky is a riveting piece of work, a sort of hybrid of Alfred Hitchcock suspense and George Bernard Shaw polemic where everybody gets their say. It’s a movie for grownups that teenagers might even like—and vice versa—and that gives them both something to talk about afterward.