Never tell a soldier he doesn’t know the cost of war.
Eye in the Sky directed by Gavin Hood (X-Men Origins: Wolverine, who also appears on screen in a minor role) opens on an idyllic scene of an adorable little girl, Alia (newcomer Aisha Takow), spinning a hula hoop in her backyard. Since her family lives in a militia-controlled part of Kenya, her parents worry about her playing or reading schoolbooks in front of fanatics. They have no way of knowing their sweet child is about to become the center of a debate about the risks of international warfare.
While Alia is going about her daily routine, British military officials – Lt. General Frank Benson (the late, great Alan Rickman) and Colonel Katherine Powell (Helen Mirren, who can convey more steely authority with just the set of her shoulders than most performers could with pages of dialogue) – have set up a joint mission with the Americans to capture some of the worst terrorists in East Africa. Powell briefs the drone’s operators, Carrie (played by Phoebe Fox from The Woman in Black 2: Angel of Death) and Steve (Aaron Paul of Breaking Bad fame) that the drone is merely to be the “eye in the sky” on what is set to be a capture mission. Inevitably though, things don’t go as expected and when the terrorists turn up in a hostile neighborhood and are seen preparing suicide vests, Powell decides the best thing is to rain down a Hellfire missile instead. Neither Carrie nor Steve has ever actually executed a missile strike before, so they’re both nervous. Then Alia shows up in the Kill Zone to set up a stall selling bread.
What follows is not only a fast-paced and intense thriller in its own right (Hood’s direction is masterful and he’s aided by a brilliant script from Guy Hibbert), but a rigorous debate about the ethics and fallout of warfare in an age where the instigators are generally making decisions from thousands of miles away. The British are in charge of this mission; Powell and Benson are in England, along with Cabinet members Brian Woodale (Jeremy Northam) and James Willett (Iain Glenn). But the Hellfire missiles will be launched by U.S. military personnel located in Las Vegas. Everyone involved tries to shuffle responsibility and potential blame. Only one Angela Northman (Monica Dolan) seems ready to make a firm decision either way; she’s opposed to the strike but it’s not clear whether she fears more for Alia or for the potential propaganda blowback.
Powell might seem the ostensible hero of the piece, but in her determination to get the job done she’s willing to cross more than one boundary. It’s not coincidental, that the most noble figure of all, local Kenyan agent Jama Farah (Barkhad Abdi following up his Academy nominated turn in Captain Phillips) is the only one who’s actually on the ground of the attack site and the only one at personal risk. As the characters weigh the potential costs and damage of this one missile, we in the audience have to ask ourselves about the costs of waging war from afar without consequence.