(M) Directed by Gavin Hood
Starring Helen Mirren, Aaron Paul, Alan Rickman

by Ben McEachen

From several “situation rooms” in the UK, USA and Kenya, an international military team zeroes in upon wanted terrorists in Nairobi. As mission commander Katherine Powell (Mirren) lobbies hard for a drone strike, the many parties involved are rocked by the implications of collateral damage.

More than two millenium ago, Greek playwright Aeschylus coined an enduring observation: “In war, truth is the first casualty.” Gavin Hood's ethical dissection of drone warfare opens with this quote on-screen yet what follows doesn't explore that casualty. Yes, truth comes under fire and sustains injury. But Eye in the Sky builds grippingly to dwell upon the human toll of being a cog in the machine of war.

Back on the real-world battlefield of Rendition after the fantasy fights of X-Men Origins: Wolverine and Ender's Game, Hood (with screenwriter Guy Hibbert) respectfully deploys the 2013 terrorist attack on a Nairobi shopping mall as a palpable backdrop. In the foreground, screen dame Helen Mirren is credibly clinical as British colonel Powell, desperate to capture heavyweights within the al-Shabaab extremist group.

As the mission team scrutinises a “safe house” in a Kenyan township, tensions simmer to boiling. The set-up to moral meltdown brings movie contrivances, stereotypes and “The condor has landed” cliches. But when Jesse Pinkman has his finger remotely on the trigger (Aaron Paul lends disciplined heart to his drone pilot), Powell's sparring with British and American military and political leaders becomes meaningfully complex.

Impressive for exploring warfare issues still in their infancy, Hood and Hibbert use the detached precision of drones to remind that conflict can't avoid being an intimate human experience. Via “situation room” link-ups that become less dry as they escalate, the legal, political and personal quandaries of collateral damage are passionately debated. Without demonising, Eye in the Sky distills down to a disturbing equation that should haunt our dreams: to potentially save many, is it “right” to sacrifice the lives of a few? What if they are bystanders?

In his last on-screen role, Alan Rickman epitomises how Hood's war “game” affirms the soul-challenging link between the powers that be and what they can do. As top-brass liaison Frank Benson, Rickman unites pragmatism with a pulse impacted by his job's mortal repercussions. Although the finale is weakened by delivering tragedy with artistic flourishes, the formula Benson uses for fighting a “war on terror” lingers as a provocative salvo to chew over.

Wading into an ethical minefield of real-world importance, this survey of humanity's casualties in war is lean, considered and resonant.

This review was originally published by Empire magazine, April 2016 edition. Click here for more about Empire.