Eye in the Sky review: “thought-provoking and filled with nail-biting suspense”

To drone or not to drone? Helen Mirren, Alan Rickman and Aaron Paul make life-or-death decisions in a thriller hewn from the most hot-button material

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★★★★

Following a couple of disappointing forays into fantasy with the inauspicious Ender’s Game and X-Men Origins: Wolverine, South African film-maker Gavin Hood’s latest combines the political charge of 2007’s Rendition and the social conscience of his Oscar-winning 2005 film Tsotsi.

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With his seventh crack of the director’s whip, he confronts the hot-button topic of drone strikes in a manner that’s fittingly clear-eyed, demonstrating both remarkable focus and extraordinary scope.

In Eye in the Sky we’re watching the watchmen (and women) during a joint UK and US military operation in Nairobi, remotely commanded by the steely Colonel Katherine Powell (a precision-cast Helen Mirren) and overseen from Whitehall by Jeremy Northam’s weaselly minister and Monica Dolan’s righteous civil servant.

With a local team poised and awaiting instruction, the objective is to capture key Al-Shabaab terror targets – including two British citizens and an American – while a drone operated by US personnel (Aaron Paul and Phoebe Fox) is the titular observer. However, as the situation on the ground evolves, a military strike becomes the increasingly inevitable option.

By choosing to explore the shifting rules of engagement and the ramifications relating to a single mission, the film is able to come at events from a number of angles. It investigates in satisfying depth the issues at hand, their complexity relayed with clarity by British screenwriter Guy Hibbert (a multiple Bafta winner for his TV work). Hibbert weaves together a thought-provoking and engaging series of debates, deftly taking into consideration the legal restrictions, political implications, tactical arguments and moral quandaries relating to remote warfare and fashioning them into a narrative of nail-biting suspense.

Eye in the Sky draws out the cynicism, cowardice and buck-passing, as well as the ingenuity and limitations of the technology at the coalition’s disposal, the prospect of setting a dangerous precedent, the frustrations associated with making military decisions by government committee, and the paralysing fear of the public perception.

It weighs up the likely collateral damage against the cost of doing nothing – powerfully, if a touch crudely – through the proximity of an adorable child to the unfolding, soon-to-be-explosive action. We also get a fleeting sense of the misery of growing up under an oppressive, fanatical regime and, on the other side, see how the young men and women of the armed forces are forced into positions of great personal compromise by their superiors.

Although Mirren’s Powell remains a largely cool customer, the other participants squirm, squabble and are racked with crippling guilt. There’s grim humour, particularly from the late Alan Rickman – wonderfully withering in his final on-screen role – as a general who acts as the exasperated intermediary between Powell and a roomful of Westminster suits. And, by illustrating how this life-or-death decision-making takes place alongside the key players’ normal, sometimes comically trivial lives – the British Foreign Secretary (Iain Glen) has food poisoning, the US Secretary of State (Michael O’Keefe) is itching to return to his table-tennis tournament, Rickman is on a quest for the correct children’s toy – it introduces a welcome satirical streak, lightening the mood while maintaining the commentary.

Hood (who also has a small role as an American colonel) renders all that unfolds compelling and coherent despite the numerous participants and constant location shifts. Although Eye in the Sky offers up a range of views and an impressively balanced picture, there’s no denying its “every life matters” message. If it feels the need to hammer home its compassion during an excessively sentimental dénouement it’s a shame, as, by then, the point has been very effectively made.

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Eye in the Sky is released in cinemas on Friday 15 April