The messy complexities of drone warfare trigger command decisions, moral crises, collateral damage and cover-your-backside buck passing in “Eye in the Sky,” a rivetingly suspenseful drama that deftly intertwines elements of ticking-clock thriller and tragic farce. Director Gavin Hood (“Tsotsi”) and scripter Guy Hibbert (“Five Minutes of Heaven”) resist giving their material the extra push that might have transformed the movie into a flat-out black comedy. But much like “Dr. Strangelove,” the Stanley Kubrick classic it often recalls, this teasingly hard-to-label war story has more than a fair share of scenes that generate explosive laughter — until the laughter catches in your throat. Appreciative reviews and enthusiastic word of mouth, along with op-ed analyses and cable-news punditry, could significantly boost box office prospects and ancillary-platform potential.
To be sure, Hood and Hibbert aren’t exactly tilling virgin territory here. In the last year alone, drone warfare has served as subject matter for “Good Kill,” the Andrew Niccol film starring Ethan Hawke, and “Grounded,” George Brant’s award-winning play, which Julie Taymor staged to great acclaim at New York’s Public Theater with Anne Hathaway in the lead (and only) role. But while those dramas were intimate, tightly focused character studies, “Eye in the Sky” is appreciably more panoramic in its approach, jumping back and forth across four continents while detailing the particulars of a multinational military mission involving British commanders, image-conscious politicians, a Las Vegas-based drone pilot, Kenyan Special Forces personnel, and Somali terrorists who meet in a safe house that may not be so safe after all.
Steely-eyed Col. Katherine Powell (a fiercely persuasive Helen Mirren) oversees Egret, a meticulously planned operation aimed at capturing a radicalized young Englishwoman (Lex King) who has joined Al-Shabaab terrorists for a conference in a quiet corner of a densely populated Nairobi neighborhood. When high-tech surveillance reveals that the wayward Brit, a similarly radicalized U.S. national, and their Al-Shabaab allies are readying suicide-bomb attacks, Col. Powell thinks the objective should be changed from “capture” to “kill.” Lt. Gen. Frank Benson (Alan Rickman), her superior, readily agrees that requesting a missile assault by a U.S. military drone is the correct course of action.
Trouble is, while Powell impatiently awaits final approval in her war room, Benson is quite literally surrounded by second-guessing politicos who fret over legal repercussions — and, more important, public reactions. Obviously mindful of the potential for Wikileakage, they worry that footage of a missile attack in a sovereign nation — especially one that results in inadvertent civilian casualties — could end up as “postings on You Tube.” In the interest of being safe, not sorry, the politicos “refer up” to both the U.K. foreign secretary (who’s in Singapore at an arms industry trade fair) and the U.S. secretary of state (who interrupts his activity at a Beijing ping-pong tournament to cheerfully sign off on the attack).
Further complications arise, and additional “referring up” is necessitated, when drone pilot Steve Watts (Aaron Paul) views an inconvenient detail on his monitor: An angelic-looking little girl (Aisha Takow) has entered the kill zone to sell bread. Watts demands a recalculation of the game plan, to avoid harming (or, more likely, killing) a civilian. Benson argues that the primary targets, suicide bombers, will kill dozens of men, women and children. The politicos continue to dither. And meanwhile, Powell’s frustration mounts as she considers the possibility that the terrorists may disperse before a final OK to kill is given.
Here and there throughout “Eye in the Sky,” Hood and Hibbert sprinkle humanizing character quirks — Benson worries about buying the right doll for his child; the U.K. foreign secretary (a fine seriocomic turn by Iain Glen) is impeded by a bout of food poisoning — to counterbalance the ever-increasing suspense with comic relief. But the humor is far subtler, and much darker, during stretches when the movie is deadly serious.
Characters repeatedly resort to evasive, Orwellian double-speak, whether they’re issuing orders or raising objections. (At one point, the drone pilot is given clearance “to prosecute the target.”) But the purposefully innocuous language often is more horrifying or hilarious (or both) than any blunt-spoken admission of culpability, cowardice or cold-blooded calculation ever could be.
Purely on the level of a crackerjack political thriller, “Eye on the Sky” is hugely entertaining, with razor-sharp editing by Megan Gill suitably amping the tension, and sharp lensing by Haris Zambarloukos effectively contrasting the chilly confines of the interiors and the menace in broad daylight of the exteriors. Production designer Johnny Breedt and special effects supervisor Mickey Kirsten further enhance the overall air credibility of the movie’s depiction of high-tech searching and destroying.
The ensemble cast is exceptional across the board, with a standout performance from Barkhad Abdi (“Captain Phillips”), who makes a compelling impression, with a minimal amount of dialogue, as an undercover agent who realizes each moment that passes might be his last as he keeps watch on the terrorists’ meeting place.
“Eye in the Sky” was filmed on location in Hood’s homeland of South Africa, and it’s worth sticking around until the end of the closing credits to note this provocative disclaimer: “Produced with the assistance of the Department of Trade and Industry South Africa, which does not accept any liability for the content and does not necessarily support such content.” That almost sounds like a line of dialogue from the film.