The War on Terror is given a provocative and suspense-filled exploration in the political thriller "Eye in the Sky," from South African director Gavin Hood ("X-Men Origins: Wolverine," "Rendition"). Helen Mirren stars as Colonel Katherine Powell, a British officer overseeing a joint military operation between Britain and America targeting a terrorist cell in Kenya. The operation has received intel suggesting that two of their most wanted may be headed to a safe house in Nairobi, and an unmanned aircraft operated by pilot Steve Watts (Aaron Paul) is directed to confirm their location. With a Lt. General (Alan Rickman in his final onscreen performance) and a collection of senior British government officials observing, Powell stresses that it's a mission to capture, not kill, but the operation suddenly shifts its objective to a targeted drone strike when surveillance suggests that a suicide bombing is being set into motion.
Hood keeps these events gripping, even when some of the plot developments start to feel contrived. The appearance of a young Kenyan girl within the strike zone is a quick and easy way to drum up the maximum amount of drama -- but it doesn't make it any less effective. And thankfully, Hood uses the device to generate a significant amount of ambiguity as he explores the more difficult moral and ethical questions associated with modern warfare. We watch the various players pass the buck, kicking responsibility up and down the chain of command, weighing the life of one girl against the untold numbers who might die should the bombers successfully carry out their intended mission. As one politician reminds us: "If they kill 80 people, we win the propaganda war; if we kill one child, they do."
With the clock ticking, and everyone waiting either for approval or for the girl to miraculously move out of harm's way, Hood creates a remarkable sense of tension out of inaction. Equally good are the scenes involving the efforts of a Somali agent on the ground (the wonderful Barkhad Abdi, "Captain Phillips").
Writer Guy Hibbert does a great job detailing the many legal, political, and military-based decisions that must be addressed in these situations, even working in some darkly satirical "Dr. Strangelove"-esque humor. When a target can be obliterated with the push of a button on orders from a commander half a world away, there's a danger of becoming detached from the real human consequences of military actions. But the difficult truth is that sometimes there's just as much at risk by doing nothing at all.