After campaigning on a platform of a smarter fight against terror, President Barack Obama molded America’s burgeoning drone program into this vision of a more surgical war. Using unmanned aircraft, Obama could wage a truly Global War on Terror, raining Hellfire missiles down on targets from Somalia to Pakistan without committing ground troops. While this is cheaper and less devastating than ground wars, there’s still a considerable cost — in a 2015 report, The Intercept revealed that some 90 percent of those killed by drone strikes in Afghanistan had been civilians. Which begs the questions: In the War on Terror, how many innocents are the good guys allowed to kill, and if we’re killing innocents, are we still the good guys?
Gavin Hood’s timely new film “Eye In The Sky” explores these issues through the lens of a British operation tracking al Shabaab leaders in Nairobi, Kenya. Hood emphasizes the global nature of the operation — Col. Katherine Powell (Helen Mirren) leads the op from Sussex, England, Lt. Gen. Benson (the late Alan Rickman) and government officials oversee from London, Air Force Lt. Steve Watts (Aaron Paul) pilots the drone from Las Vegas, and a tech in Pearl Harbor, HI. verifies the identities of potential targets. A Kenyan spy (Barkhad Abdi) on the ground assists.
Hood doesn’t waste any time getting into the meat of the story. A British national who Powell has been chasing for years is finally in her crosshairs, along with two American citizens who have traveled to Kenya to volunteer for suicide bombings. Powell is eager to drop a missile right through the roof to eliminate her target and prevent any potential suicide bombings.
The problem? There’s a young girl selling bread in the street, just a few yards from the intended target. Her team tells her there’s well over a 60 percent chance of her dying in the blast.
What happens over the next hour is a verbal tug of war, a “12 Angry Men” with potentially exploded children at stake. Mirren and Rickman want to strike, the politicians don’t want a PR mess on their hands and Paul doesn’t want a child’s blood on his hands.
There’s a surprising amount of dark humor in the film, mostly coming from the droll Rickman and the Americans who act absolutely puzzled when the Brits express reticence at extrajudicial execution and collateral damage.
Paul has plenty of experience in being forced to commit horrific acts of violence from “Breaking Bad,” and his scenes are among the films most compelling. Mirren and Rickman bring their usual steel to their roles, and their exhaustion at political hand-wringing commands empathy.
While the film’s 102-minute runtime rarely drags despite its dialogue-intensive nature, Hood’s direction sometimes borders on overly sentimental, especially its coda. A non-verbal scene with the girl’s father at the end serves to continue the voicelessness of those affected by drone warfare.
“Eyes In The Sky” presents a difficult ethical question, one that demands a definitive answer. Hood tries to have it both ways and the otherwise-solid film suffers for it.