[This is a re-post of my Eye in the Sky review from the 2015 Toronto International Film Festival. The movie opens in limited release today.]
As society and technology evolve, so does the manner in which we go to war. Unfortunately, war has been a facet of humanity since its very existence, and with war comes loss, violence, and moral quandaries. It’s this latter issue that’s become supremely important in the “drone warfare” age, and director Gavin Hood’s effective, smart thriller Eye in the Sky tackles the issue of mortality (ie. “What’s the right thing to do?”) head on as it charts a single mission involving a drone strike from the points of view of the various people involved in pulling the trigger. While the film’s melodramatic conclusion threatens to undo the goodwill of its first two thirds, it’s mostly an intelligent, engaging, and sometimes darkly funny drama about the process—and cost—of 21st century warfare.
Eye in the Sky opens with Colonel Katherine Powell (Helen Mirren), who has been tracking a radicalized British citizen working with Somali terrorists for years and finally has a chance at capture in Nairobi. She begins putting together Operation Cobra—a capture mission—by roping in British Lieutenant General Frank Benson (Alan Rickman), who is located in London alongside British Attorney General George Matherson (Richard McCabe) and other high-level members of the British government. Also involved is Nevada-based drone operator Steve Watts (Aaron Paul), who is tasked with being the team’s “eye in the sky” while the capture mission is enacted. But when their main person of interest diverts course into a crowded, heavily guarded residential area, Operation Cobra is forced to change from a capture mission to a kill mission, with the drone as its weapon of choice.
Further complicating matters is Nairobi-based asset Jama Farah (Barkhad Abdi) working on the ground in close proximity to the house of interest, as well other factors that present the entire team with a dilemma that blurs the lines between legality and morality. As the various powers that be argue over how best to take action, the clock ticks down and their window of opportunity dwindles.
While the beginning of the film feels like it’s setting the audience up for a somewhat boring lesson on drone warfare (I’m looking at you, Good Kill), Hood—still wiping the sting of X-Men Origins: Wolverine off with Ender’s Game and now this—excellently threads the needle of tension and, before you know it, the thriller aspect of the film becomes abundantly clear as the series of events play out in semi-real time over the course of one day. But this isn’t an episode of 24 that’s all action, little talk. Hood is fascinated by the decision-making process that leads directly to a drone strike, and so we watch as egos rise and responsibility is passed on through the ranks. The interplay amongst the government and military officials at times feels like an episode of The West Wing, with Guy Hibbert’s sharp script dropping in enough humor to ensure that what’s essentially a series of conversations keeps the audience on the edge of its seat.
The performances from the entire ensemble are top notch, with each person filling his or her emotional role perfectly. Mirren is the driven hard-ass with years of investment in this one asset, Rickman tries to bridge the gap to the British government, and Paul is the one that actually has to come to terms with pulling the trigger. Hood balances all of these perspectives wonderfully, and even makes time to address the United States’ position on drone warfare—as you can probably guess, it’s not exactly flattering.
Unfortunately, the film’s final act (all the way up through the end credits) nosedives into the maudlin and saccharine instead of trusting its story to do the emotional heavy lifting, which is disappointing because the rest of the film handles this topic with such tact and level-headedness. It’s so bad that it comes right up to the line of negating just how good the rest of the film is, but thankfully the damage isn’t entirely irreparable.
We live in weird times, and as the nature of warfare evolves, it’s important to understand not only the cost of it on those physically affected, but also how it impacts our humanity at all levels. Eye in the Sky is a superbly engaging, dryly funny chronicle of the intricacies of 21st century warfare that, while too melodramatic in places, deftly manages to avoid becoming a polemic. One part thriller, one part political drama plus a splash of satire makes for a fine, if sobering, cocktail.