Alan Rickman makes his last screen appearance in Eye in the Sky.

Now that drones have become part of the way we fight war, for good or ill, they’ve started to be incorporated into war movies from Good Kill to Body of Lies. The trouble is that the same thing that makes drones attractive to real-world military and political leaders — they take troops out of harm’s way — is the same thing that tends to make these movies uncinematic. After all, watching a drone pilot fire a missile from the safety of his chair is a good deal less dramatic than watching a bomber pilot dodge anti-aircraft fire. Eye in the Sky is the best movie about drone warfare I’ve seen so far, yet it still left me frustrated.

The movie starts when a bunch of terrorists, some of them British or American, belonging to al-Qaeda’s East Africa arm al-Shabaab meet in an unremarkable house on the outskirts of Nairobi. They’re being monitored by a U.S. drone piloted by Sgt. Steve Watts (Aaron Paul) from a base outside Las Vegas, with the video footage being beamed to Col. Katherine Powell (Helen Mirren) of the British Army in London. She’s been trying to nab these terrorists for years, and when additional surveillance on the ground turns up explosive-laden vests inside the house, she has clearance to drop a bomb on the lot of them. The sticking point is a 9-year-old girl (Aisha Takow) who has set up a roadside stand just outside the house to sell her mother’s roti and will be caught in the blast. While the al-Shabaab guys make their suicide videos, the question of whether and how to save this girl gets kicked up and down two countries’ military and civilian chains of command.

This is under the helm of Gavin Hood, the South African filmmaker who won an Oscar for Tsotsi and has since directed X-Men Origins: Wolverine and Ender’s Game for Hollywood. This is the best of his English-language films. It’s tough to make suspense from a story that switches between a series of unrelentingly uninteresting windowless rooms where people are mostly standing or sitting and watching a screen. Hood manages the trick with admirable dexterity, tightening the screws with an exquisite sense of timing. Though the movie doesn’t tell us anything we don’t know about drone warfare, we do see the measures taken in these far-off rooms to do right and the difficulties involved. You’ll probably get a better sense of the brutal calculus of dealing with terrorism when a British official (Richard McCabe) advises saving the girl even if it means letting the bad guys go: “If they kill dozens of our civilians, we win the PR war. If we kill one innocent person, they win.” Still, it’s telling that the most excitement he generates involves a character who’s in direct physical danger, the local surveillance guy in Kenya (Barkhad Abdi from Captain Phillips), who talks his way past heavily armed al-Shabaab thugs and then has to ward off the interest of a curious kid when he’s controlling a mini-drone while pretending to play a video game.


This, I think, leads to my main issue with the film: The consequences are too distant. Surely it’s one of this movie’s points that when a drone operation such as this one goes wrong, it’s innocents in the Third World who pay the price while the ones behind it can do little more than wring their hands. Still, if everyone is a replaceable cog in a machine and powerless to make a better outcome, then where’s the tragedy? The actors seem mostly lost, isolated as they are from one another in all these separate rooms. Eye in the Sky wants badly to have a searing emotional impact, but for all its efforts, it never quite gets there.

This movie contains the last onscreen appearance by the late Alan Rickman, who portrays a general overseeing the drone strike. His penultimate scene features a civilian official (Monica Dolan) tearing a not-undeserved strip off the military man, calling him a disgrace. His stiff speech in response, from a guy knowing he has little leeway to respond, is beautifully delivered, concluding with the line, “Never tell a soldier he doesn’t know the cost of war.” It’s a fine sendoff for an undervalued but much-appreciated actor.


[box_info]Eye in the Sky
Starring Helen Mirren and Aaron Paul. Directed by Gavin Hood. Written by Guy Hibbert. Rated R.[/box_info]