Eye in the Sky (2015) / Thriller-Drama

MPAA Rated: R for some violent images and language
Running Time: 102 min.

Cast: Helen Mirren, Alan Rickman, Aaron Paul, Jeremy Northam, Monica Dolan, Richard McCabe, Phoebe Fox, Barkhad Abdi, Aisha Takow, Iain Glen, Gavin Hood
Director: Gavin Hood
Screenplay: Guy Hibbert
Review published March 27, 2016

Eye in the Sky is a small-scale dramatic thriller that posits a simple fictional scenario that spins off into a host of moral and political questions on decisions involving drone strikes. Bouncing the action around between Air Force operations based in the United States, war rooms in England, and a small village in Kenya, the storyline involves one such potential strike of a house in Kenya in which there is a meeting among several higher-ups in the terrorist organization known as al-Shabbab. 

The difficulty in taking these terrorists out comes from the collateral damage that will occur in their particular location, especially when the potential collateral damage assessment has a public face in the form of a young Kenyan girl who has set up shop just outside of the perimeter of their headquarters, where they are planning to strap on a vest of explosives to be used in an imminent a suicide bombing.  Can they intentionally kill the girl to potentially save the lives of dozens of others, by averting the suicide bombing about to happen?  What will the political fallout be for all involved, and is it worth the risk of action, or inaction? 

The film benefits from a well-crafted script from Guy Hibbert (Five Minutes of Heaven) and a very capable cast of character actors, directed by Gavin Hood, who covered some similar ground in his last film, an adaptation of Ender's Game.  If nothing else, it shows, if the film is accurate, that there may be a decidedly human element to the process of drone strikes, which have often been criticized for taking human decisions out of the equation to make acts of war a disconnected, sterile act on the part of those in command.  Most of the action takes place on video screens showing live surveillance footage taken from the drone in the sky and a collection of improbably high-tech miniature spy drones in the appearance of hummingbirds and beetles.  It's an ambiguous way of dealing with war, but given that there is no avowed war against Kenya, and the unwillingness to put American or British lives on the line to get there, the drone strike might be considered the only viable option in such a case, arguing that the killing of a few lives saves a great deal more if successful, making it an acceptable risk one can make, presumably, in good conscience.

Despite the star caliber of the ensemble cast, including the final on-screen performance for the late Alan Rickman (CBGB), there is a discernable lack of production specs to the film that makes it look and feel like something that had originally been intended for television, which may not be a surprise given that screenwriter has almost exclusively written teleplays in his career.  It's a verbose script, full of talking heads that are beaded with sweat going back and forth reassessing the situation with each new piece of information, much in the way another more successful film based on a teleplay, 12 Angry Men, would do.  At times the film dabbles with becoming a satire, though not as obvious as Dr. Strangelove, as the buck is persistently passed among higher and higher people in command, all of whom seem to wish to ease their consciences by allowing someone else to shoulder the decision to actually order the trigger be pulled.  And those that do have the authority would rather defer to the letter of the law of drone engagement to answer the questions at hand.  With so many hypotheticals in the mix, no one wants to be wrong, and there's no win-win scenario that can easily be had as long as that innocent girl remains in the blast zone.

I'm conflicted by Eye in the Sky, as this is a film that certainly could have been a one-hour episode of a TV drama without losing any of the important story elements or momentum.  It is also not a film that stands out well on a movie theater screen, with its minimalist locale work and obvious digital camera textures -- only the star power and the significance of Rickman's posthumous appearance in particular makes it something above average from a technical standpoint.  And yet, it is also an effective story once it starts to get down to crunch time, as the suspense of the situation begins to pay off, causing us to become invested in how things will ultimately play out.  It's a think-piece movie, more engaging for the hot-button discussions it will likely provoke than as a riveting thriller on its own, but there should be just enough tension for most viewers patient enough to see the story to the very end, and just enough weight for us all to ask ourselves what we might do if confronted with the same situation.

Qwipster's rating:

2016 Vince Leo