Rating in Stars: *** (out of ****)
Cast: Helen Mirren, Aaron Paul, Alan Rickman, Barkhad Abdi, Jeremy Northam
Director: Gavin Hood
MPAA Rating: R (for some violent images and language)
Running Time: 1:42
Release Date: 03/11/16 (limited)
The central argument will, to some people of one frame of mind and to others who ascribe to the opposite one, seem a false equivalent. The former group might argue that surely the casualty of one small girl as collateral damage in the midst of a heated military operation is acceptable for the greater good of more than eighty who might perish instead. The other group will balk at such an idea, stating firmly that the girl should be given a chance to live, even at the cost of dozens more lives. By offering a literal argument to that end, Eye in the Sky lives in between the two arguments and, simultaneously, outside of it. This is partly a political thriller, but the crux of Guy Hibbert’s screenplay is procedural in nature.
There has been a terrorist attack in Kenya via suicide bombing that left almost seventy people dead and hundreds more wounded. The same group massacred nearly 200 students at a school. One gets the idea that the terrorist cell is, perhaps, stridently against the education of young women when one girl is asked by her father to put away her schoolbooks, lest the knock at his door be a member of the cell. They live behind the house that is currently the meeting place for former British and American nationals who radicalized years before and are, along with the British national’s Nairobian husband, three of the top five targets for capture or kill by the U.S. in the region.
We meet the players in motion. Coordinating the capture is Col. Katherine Powell (Helen Mirren) somewhere onsite in England. She and her team have a direct line with Lt. Gen. Frank Benson (Alan Rickman, whose final role in a live-action setting utilizes the actor’s commanding stillness well) in London as he hosts a viewing party for the capture with members of the British Parliament (played by Monica Dolan, Richard McCabe, and Jeremy Northam). In Las Vegas, rookie airman Carrie Gershon (Phoebe Fox) is partnered with Lt. Steve Watts (Aaron Paul) to man the drone that will overlook the operation (Director Gavin Hood, who expertly builds tension alongside editor Megan Gill and cinematographer Haris Zambarloukos, appears as their CO). On the ground are Major Moses Owiti (Vusi Kunene) and his subordinates Damisi (Ebby Weyime), who runs point, and Jama (Barkhad Abdi), who mans cameras disguised as a bird and a beetle for surveillance.
A major problem arises. Their targets do, indeed, all converge in the same place, but it occurs at a different house in a neighborhood that is nearly impossible to penetrate. Surveillance of the house uncovers the fact that suicide vests and explosive devices line the top of one of the house’s beds, causing the intended capture to become a kill chain into which Powell and Benson both feel locked. The officials cannot agree on a solid option, while the Foreign Secretary Minister (Iain Glen), suffering from a case of food poisoning on a trip to an arms trade gala, and the U.S. Secretary of State, playing a table tennis competition in China, tell them to get a move on. Watts and Gershon await orders.
And then there is a further kink in the works that changes some minds, doesn’t change others, and runs the risk of getting to the brink of another, potentially deadlier attack than what has come before: That aforementioned schoolgirl begins selling bread directly outside the house that is their target. The rest of the film is meticulous in the way it presents each side of this argument: some are united in the opinion that the risk of letting the terrorists leave is too great to save the girl, others are appalled by the idea of allowing her to die, and meanwhile the situation resolves itself in the only way it possibly can. There is another element to Eye in the Sky that raises its head within the final ten minutes, a cruel irony that doesn’t belong except to manipulate, but this is a fittingly tense examination of desperate choices and the spaces between them.