Humans have forever been finding new ways to kill each other and movies have forever documented the myriad ways in which humans kill each other. This latest effort from South African director Gavin Hood follows in such traditions, exploring the very latest in military tactics and technology that has been developed to make the taking of human lives as efficient and cost-effective as possible. Starring Helen Mirren as Colonel Katherine Powell, a British military officer overseeing a top secret drone operation in Kenya, Eye in the Sky examines the moral, political and personal implications of modern warfare.

Eye in the Sky poster

Much more a thriller than a typical war film, Eye in the Sky tracks the course of one day in the lives of those tasked with making decisions that often have devastating consequences. The various characters are located in different parts of the world and, with none of those making the decisions in any way at risk, this lends itself to an altogether different dynamic to the kill-or-be-killed combat model on which so many war films have drawn their narrative inspiration. As such, it might be argued that there is much moral ambiguity at play here and Hood does delve into the impact such missions have on those involved at the various levels of authority. What begins as a surveillance operation to capture members of the al-Shabaab terrorist group soon becomes a mission of extermination when it becomes apparent that the group is about to engage in a suicide bombing. Powell has no qualms at all about the possible loss of life beyond those being targeted in the attack, while others are not so steadfast in their resolve.

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Amongst those in the chain of command are Lieutenant General Frank Benson (Alan Rickman in his final on-screen role), the officer charged with securing the requisite approvals from the British Government; Steve Watts (Breaking Bad’s Aaron Paul), the drone pilot operating from an air force base in Las Vegas; and Jama (Barkhad Abdi from Captain Phillips) an operative on the ground in Kenya. Powell is desperate to push ahead with the bombing of the house in which the targets are ensconced, even when 9-year-old girl Alia (Aisha Takow) wanders into the immediate vicinity and will almost certainly be killed should the attack proceed. This is a movie which privileges dialogue over action, but there is still plenty of tension in the air as the bureaucracy kicks into gear, potentially putting the mission at risk. You see, nobody in the Government wants to approve the mission – largely because of the potential political implications rather than any particular moral objection. Furthermore, much to Powell’s chagrin, Watts is reluctant to unleash a missile while the girl remains at risk, although ultimately any emotional or ethical objections he may have must be cast aside if he is to complete the mission.

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Hood has been very economical in his telling of this story and there is no back story or personal anecdotes to clutter the narrative. It is all about what is happening now and we find out very little about the various characters beyond their role in the operation, which makes an early scene in which Benson sets out to purchase a doll for his granddaughter so out of step with the rest of the film. This is a blatant attempt to deride him as callous given his lack of concern for another girl of similar age whose mere existence causes all manner of inconvenience. As such, Hood’s perspective is clear, which isn’t really a problem given it is hard to imagine that anybody sees the death of innocent civilians (or collateral damage as it is dispassionately regarded in military circles) as something to celebrate. What the film does illustrate is just how people might be turned towards radicalism. After all, Alia’s parents are moderate Muslims who distance themselves from the radical elements and encourage their daughter to be educated and enjoy her childhood, yet they still find themselves in the firing line. A thought provoking, intelligent indictment of the sense of superiority – both militarily and morally – that the western alliance possesses, Eye in the Sky is perhaps Hood’s best film since 2005’s Tsotsi. With a terse and efficient screenplay by Guy Hibbert, editing that effortlessly switches the action between continents without any loss of narrative momentum or authenticity and with solid performances from the ensemble cast, which includes Jeremy Northam, Iain Glen and impressive English actress Phoebe Fox as Watts’ newbie co-pilot, Eye in the Sky is a remarkably suspenseful experience.