Movie Review: “Eye in the Sky”

Helen Mirren, Aaron Paul, Alan Rickman, Barkhad Abdi, Iain Glen
Gavin Hood

Director Gavin Hood treats war and violence very seriously in his work. Even in his adaptation of the young adult novel, “Ender’s Game,” the director stayed true to the source material’s sense of pain and loss. “X-Men Origins: Wolverine” will forever remain an oddity in Hood’s work, because that film’s violence is beyond cartoonish, while the rest of his films, including “Eye in the Sky,” take their stakes seriously.

The movie opens with Lieutenant General Frank Benson (Alan Rickman) shopping for a doll for his daughter. He becomes increasingly annoyed, unable to find the right one. After requesting an assistant to take care of it for him, the Lieutenant General couldn’t be more confident and in control when pushing for a drone strike that could possibly kill a child as part of collateral damage. It’s not an entirely subtle transition, but it is very effective, which is a good way of describing “Eye in the Sky.”

Initially planned as a “capture” mission between the U.K. and U.S., the operation is amended when an on-the-ground agent (Barkhad Abdi) sees one of the targets, Aisha Al Hady (Lex King), preparing for a suicide bombing. Colonel Katherine Powell (Helen Mirren) immediately calls for a strike, but when two drone pilots in Las Vegas, Steve Watts (Aaron Paul) and Carrie Gershon (Phoebe Fox), spot a child in the vicinity of the target, it changes everything.

While we’ve seen drone warfare covered plenty of times lately (like Andrew Niccol’s “Good Kill”), screenwriter Guy Hibbert and Hood present it in a new light. For a movie that’s fairly small in scale, and one that takes place over the course of only a few hours, it’s often sprawling in nature. Hood and Hibbert show the nuts and bolts involved in calling for a drone strike, and it’s suspenseful, inherently dramatic and sometimes terrifying to watch unfold. Every little thing matters in this story, both for the characters and audience.

It also helps that “Eye in the Sky” is breathlessly paced. All of the exposition goes down smoothly, while Hibbert continually raises the stakes of the film. The tension is palpable, despite some variables coming across as narrative conveniences. Whatever can go wrong probably will go wrong, and although it’s authentic, narratively speaking, the bad turns are almost too neat at times.

Since the film mostly takes place within a few rooms, Hood wisely recruited actors that audiences wouldn’t mind seeing stare at televisions and computers for the length of its 102-minute runtime. Mirren is essentially the protagonist of this ensemble story, and she’s excellent in the role, spending the entire narrative trying to convince others to kill a child in order to potentially save over 80 people. She’ll do what she must to get the job done, and it’s a character and performance that lives in the grey area. The same praise can be given to most of the cast, especially the late Alan Rickman, who’s both charming and imposing in his role.

Hood’s direction is clean and to the point, much like the storytelling and characters. Since the key players must repress a lot of emotions in this situation, Hood’s close-ups let the audience in on the characters’ internal struggles. Whatever a character’s stance is on the drone strike dictates how they’re framed.

“Eye in the Sky” is a very well-crafted thriller that’s both thought-provoking and entertaining. It’s surprisingly not without a sense of levity, either. Both Rickman and Mirren share some funny moments together, but when the joke is over, viewers are brought back to the harsh reality – one that Hood presents with fine attention to detail and assured direction.