Eye in the Sky

Drone warfare is becoming a hot topic in Hollywood movies and is no longer a CGI gimmick in action movies. The first time I can recall seeing a bomb-dropping drone in a Hollywood movie (not counting the “Terminator” films) was “The Bourne Legacy.” Now, with Gavin Hood’s “Eye in the Sky” and a handful of others, drone warfare has gone from being a cool action movie trope to a thematic device to hang a cautionary tale.

Helen Mirren stars as Col. Katherine Powell, a military officer who oversees a planned capture of a suspected terrorist hiding in Kenya. Powell observes the operation from her headquarters in London, while a soldier on the field (Oscar nominee Barkhad Abdi) gets in close with his flying drones, disguised as tiny insects. When its revealed that the individual they seek is planning a large scale bombing, the plan for capture is dropped in favor of a drone strike. The problem: literally in the way of the planned assault is a little girl, selling bread close to the terrorist hideout. The question of collateral damage is brought up, then passed from various heads of state, many of whom don’t want to make the final decision to carry out or abort the mission. Powell, on the other hand, is more than willing to see a girl die if it means saving the lives of many.

It’s worth noting that the little Kenyan girl in question, named Alia, is the only character who is fleshed out. Powell has a brief introduction in her home but Alia is the key individual here, an obvious symbol of innocence that could potentially die on the battlefield. This is far from the only film to use a child as a symbol of war’s horrible toll on humanity (“Schindler’s List” also comes to mind). While using Alia as a catalyst for the bloodshed that could arrive is overly obvious, “Eye in the Sky” works as an exercise in suspense. It’s also the kind of movie you only see once, though it could be a favorite in college civics and military ethics courses.

If Mirren couldn’t play the role of Powell, the aged, no-nonsense and fiercely determined Colonel in charge, the movie might not have worked. In fact, the only actress who could presumably play the role as well would be Dame Judi Dench, but I digress. Mirren is quite good, though she’s played this sort of toughest-lady-in-the-room role many times before. The outstanding supporting performances stack high, as this is an ensemble piece and not a Mirren vehicle. Aaron Paul of “Breaking Bad” has a nice turn as the controller of “the eye.” His character must make an impossible decision in which the best case scenario is still awful. It’s nice to see Jeremy Northam in a strong role and the late, great Alan Rickman (to whom the film is dedicated) is outstanding as usual (his exit line is a killer).

Abdi, who played the Somali terrorist leader in “Captain Phillips” (he recited the immortal line, “I am your captain now”) is exceptional here; he’s such an interesting actor and is given the film’s most engaging character and plot line.

Following his celebrated “Tsotsi,” Hood has had an unfairly difficult time establishing himself as a mainstream filmmaker. His “X-Men Origins: Wolverine” is unfairly derided in comic book circles, though its tortured existence is what gave us this year’s “Deadpool” (you’re welcome, comic book nerds). His “Rendition” and especially “Ender’s Game” are underrated depictions of military ethics and the need for protocol and a moral compass during war time. With his latest film, Hood once again fashions an entertaining film loaded with provocative scenes and discussion-worthy topics.

Three Stars

originally published in Maui Time Weekly