Colonel Katherine Powell (Helen Mirren) wakes up early, day in and day out, to carry on secret drone missions that are already controversial as is, but still continue in today’s day and age of the war against terrorism. And on this one fateful morning, the Colonel leads a secret mission to capture a terrorist group living in a safe house in Nairobi, Kenya. However, once more and more information comes to her, she soon finds out that the terrorists are planning for a suicide bombing, leading her to now instead actually kill the terrorists. Meanwhile, drone pilot Steve Watts (Aaron Paul) targets the safe house; however, he spots a nine-year-old girl playing in and around the premises. Watts’s conscience kicks in and all of a sudden, he doesn’t want to blow away the terrorists until he knows that he is ethically, and legally covered on every ground. Certain people in power, like Lieutenant General Frank Benson (Alan Rickman), believe that he is good-to-go, but others like political representative Brian Woodale (Jeremy Northam) are against it and want to be absolutely in the clear and sure that this situation could get any worse, way before they actually detonate any bomb, of any sort.
On one hand, “Eye in the Sky” is this slick, contained, but small real-time thriller that likes to keep its audience in the dark about not knowing what to expect next and hanging on each and every character’s word. On the other hand, “Eye in the Sky” is also a smart, thoughtful think-piece about, well, drones, and all of the questions that surround them. Should we be using them? And if so, to what extent? What’s the certain legal parameters one should have to go through in order to make sure that they are totally, absolutely correct on who it is that they’re dropping a bomb on? And even if there are legal parameters surrounding it, does that make it “right?”
What “Eye in the Sky” does, for the most part, is deal with the issue of drone warfare more strongly and effectively than any other movie has so far. Last year’s “Good Kill” wanted to be about the same thing and its negative effects on its soldiers, but was also more concerned with its central character and his reaction to drones. Here, “Eye in the Sky” is more about the actual debate, in and of itself, where people are arguing different, sometimes opposing sides, while at the same time trying to make sure that they’re working to stop a terrorist from doing anything bad. Certain characters here could have probably been labeled as “white-blooded liberal” or “trigger-happy republican” and the point would have gotten across, as to who stood on what side of the debate and for what reasons.
Writer/director Gavin Hood could have clearly made any of this material boring and overly-preachy, but instead, he keeps it exciting, tense and above all else, hard-hitting.
“Eye in the Sky,” for better or worse, feels like the right movie to address this debate that, quite frankly, is still going on. Society still hasn’t quite latched onto the fact that there are puny, almost indecipherable robots floating around in our skies, watching our every move, ensuring that nobody’s up to anything naughty and if we are, then how and when can we be stopped. Surely this sort of warfare is intended more for terrorists, but once again, the movie lays on another question: What constitutes a “terrorist?” Obviously, those setting-up and putting together a bomb aimed and ready to get rid of thousands of innocents can be labeled as such, but what about those closely related to that same person? Does that make them guilty by association? Or could they have no idea about this person’s ideals and still get the nuke because, well, they were around and it might as well happen?
Once again, “Eye in the Sky” brings up all of these questions, gives us some answers, but mostly, leaves you cold. This is intended, however, as Hood is clearly interested in drone-warfare, for better, as well as for worse. From what it seems, Hood knows that, in some cases, drones may be effective, but in most cases, they bring doubt on those getting locked and loaded to drop the bomb. While someone lower on the food-chain may hear that they’re “getting rid of a heavily-armed and dangerous terrorist,” that person still doesn’t know a single thing about the specifics or if what they are being told is actually true. With Aaron Paul’s pilot character, we see the frustration in how he doesn’t want to drop the bomb on these suspected terrorists just yet, but knows that he has to if he wants to keep his job and not anger the wrong people off in power.
Is “Eye in the Sky” anti-Army? I’m not sure.
Either way, Hood seems to be firing on and firing on all cylinders here, and well, it damn well works. Despite all of my yammering on about what the movie talks about and goes to great lengths to argue, “Eye in the Sky” truly is a tense experience. The mission itself goes from one avenue, to another, with one twist coming after another, but it never seems manipulative or necessary – if anything, it just adds more levels of intensity to a mission that could have been simple and easy-to-solve, but now, has become as complex as they get. But it’s done well in that it keeps you watching, even if you know there’s only one way this movie can seemingly end: With people dying.
And speaking of the people here, everyone’s pretty solid. Helen Mirren holds the fort down as Colonel Katherine Powell, the head gal in charge who is ready for this mission from the very start of her day and won’t stop at anything until its completed; Aaron Paul gets to look dour and scared, which he’s fine at; Barkhad Abdi plays an agent on the ground and, while he’s not doing a whole heck of a lot, it still made me happy to see him doing something (with new teeth, mind you); and the late, great Alan Rickman shows up as Lieutenant General Frank Benson, someone who is back in the office, watching as the action unfolds. While it’s a fine performance from a great actor, what really sets it over the bar, by the end, is a small but meaningful little speech from Rickman and how it’s either get rid of the terrorists with the time they have, or step back and wait for the damage to be done. There’s a certain sadness and heartbreak in his eyes, and it’s hard not to think about, long after seeing “Eye in the Sky.”
Consensus: Incredibly tense without playing its hand too much, “Eye in the Sky” is the near-perfect thriller that deals with the heavy issues and questions, but also likes to keep its audience on their toes as well.