War movies often train their sights on a single military mission, but rare is the war pic that spends the entirety of its running time debating whether or not to pull the trigger a single time. So Eye in the Sky is particularly unique because it’s all about the discussion rather than the action. Every angle must be considered, leaving a wide range of characters with their collective hands figuratively pressing against the trigger to pore over every legal and moral detail of the mission.
This is a laser-focused look at the combined efforts of several military personnel and politicians to capture or eliminate a group of suspected terrorists in Kenya. Colonel Katherine Powell (Helen Mirren, steely as ever) has been tracking an extremist couple who are highly ranked on one of her country’s most-wanted lists for six years and now they’ve practically fallen into her lap. It’s the kind of development that would spell the end of most war movie missions, but here it’s only the beginning.
The problem that faces Colonel Powell and her allies, including the great Alan Rickman as a Lieutenant General, is multi-faceted. Plans were originally made to capture the terrorists, but the discovery of explosive suicide vests pushes the joined American and British forces to consider a kill option. A drone is put in place to launch a rocket at the building where the terrorists are preparing to embark on some sort of attack, but what collateral damage will the drone’s rocket cause?
These decisions are not made lightly and they involve many people working in different capacities, so the multi-perspective conversation unfolds across several areas around the world, from a Cabinet Office in London to a drone piloting base in Las Vegas. The gripping screenplay by Guy Hibbert has to constantly heat the conversation to the boiling point and then suddenly stall the action, further tightening the already suffocating suspense.
It’s an impressive piece of writing that never falls prey to any external distractions. The focus remains the mission at all times and the many characters that would require writerly juggling to begin with all have to be defined and developed on the fly. This puts a lot of pressure on the actors and the cast is uniformly great in responding to that pressure. We get mere hints about who these people are outside of their jobs and the actors fill in the rest.
The result is an effectively human portrayal of a difficult and dangerous situation. People’s lives are at stake thousands of miles away from the people who are deliberating about what percentage of risk should be adopted in order to stop a potentially larger disaster than the one this military mission is capable of causing. Everyone’s aware that the territory they’re stepping into is morally murky, that there’s no clear right or wrong, so they proceed with caution, but to what end?
Hibbert’s script and director Gavin Hood smartly diffuse the tension at key times by having certain characters constantly turning to some higher-up for approval in a sort of reverse delegation. This has something to do with making sure they’re in the clear with each step forward, but it’s more about not wanting to make the final call on what could be a potentially catastrophic decision. It’s almost comical or at least absurdist because it highlights the stress of the situation while establishing the myriad chains of command that enable every maneuver to be a labyrinthine game of handing off responsibility.
This also generates additional conflict within the various spaces of discussion, so the question is not only will they pull the trigger or not, but also how will they react to each other if one actually suggests the trigger be pulled. These character dynamics add compelling layers to the conversation so that Eye in the Sky doesn’t become some straightforward procedural drama tip-toeing through a set series of military protocols, but rather a prickly, tense melding of minds that must argue the knotted ethical conundrum of whether saving one life is better than risking the deaths of a hundred.
That this particular plot remains sturdy and stable over the course of a feature running time is incredible, but Hibbert and Hood and all the actors take it beyond a case of smart structure and strike at a place where humanism and realism collide. This all feels intensely believable and witnessing the desperation with which certain characters push to avoid any collateral damage juxtaposed against the apathy with which some powerful figures shrug off that very same worry makes for a very engaging examination of the complexities in play.
Hood matches intriguing visuals to the tautly terrific script as well, so we’re always aware of the different perspectives through a collection of overhead shots from the drone, stifling interiors with the action unfolding on various screens, and even some covert footage captured via tiny surveillance devices sleekly disguised as a hummingbird and beetle.
The visual experience as a whole puts the movie’s imagery in rhythm with the crackling dialogue and constricting suspense, so everything under Hood’s eye feeds the thematically tangled narrative core. This is war as a series of gray area distinctions and decisions given faces, names, and souls. The decisions are informed and instinctual and imperfect.
Hood and Hibbert don’t want us to walk away from their powerful picture feeling that we have a clear sense of right and wrong, of heroes and villains, of collateral damage as anything more than a potentially tragic gamble. They simply want to focus on the trigger. To pull or not to pull and why. While war is often depicted in cinema as inhumane, Hood and Hibbert suggest the opposite, that it is in fact entirely human, capable of change and growth, but only at a price.