Movie Review: “Eye in the Sky”

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The supply of military acronyms is endless and ever-growing, a point reinforced by the superb “Eye in the Sky,” a thriller about drone warfare.

There’s “CDE,” “collateral damage estimate,” and “PID” (“positive identification”).

But when it comes to the most lethal, surgical hi-tech weapon in America’s arsenal for the War on Terror, only one acronym matters.

“CYA”.

“Eye in the Sky” is a tasty ticking-clock thriller parked at the intersection of politics and propaganda, military technology and combat morality. It’s not the first movie about the ethics of drone warfare. The low-budget nail-biter “Drones” beat it to the punch by a couple of years.

But an A-list cast, including the great Helen Mirren, the late and great Alan Rickman, Aaron Paul, Jeremy Northam and Barkhad Abdi of “Captain Phillips,” make this first-rate entertainment and a troubling essay on “collateral damage.”

They play characters tuned-into and elbows-deep on this operation — watching from London, Pearl Harbor, the drone command Air Force base in Nevada and Nairobi itself. And when things don’t go as forecast, nobody is willing to make the Big Decision, leading to all manner of CYA.

Mirren plays a British military intelligence officer about to close a trap on a British ex-pat who has gone terrorist, and she and her team and their boss, the general played by Rickman, are ready to pull the trigger. Or have the Americans who have the drones pull the trigger.

They’ve got a target-rich safe-house in Nairobi, full of terrorists and men suiting up with suicide (bomb) vests.

But the buck is passed up and down a chain of command as time runs out in this ticking clock scenario.

Director Gavin Hood (“Tsotsi”, “Wolverine”) has made a troubling, edge-of-your-seat tale that toys with the difference between Americans and Brits — military men and women and politicians, and even movie audiences.

American filmgoers will be muttering “You have GOT to be kidding me,” along with the military folks (especially Rickman, who does a great “Gotta be kidding me” eye-roll). Brits? Will they be more cautious, more understanding of the waffling, the “consequences,” the political fallout from killing a British national and others in a friendly foreign country where they can’t afford bad press?

Abdi has a wonderful part, playing the Kenyan Agent on the Scene, ordered to infiltrate and get PID of their quarry, and kept on the spot and in mortal danger as others keep kicking the decision around.

Mirren shines as a flinty commander willing to bend the rules to accomplish the mission, but willing to let her humanity show, when it serves her purposes. Rickman gets one last droll moment, ironically introduced as his character struggles to buy the right doll for his daughter.

Paul, paired up with Phoebe Fox as the pilot and camera operator on the drone, is a more overt actor and that looks like over-acting with all these wonderfully button-downed Brits and Africans in other roles.

But even in Paul’s corniest moments, Hood keeps our eyes on the target, watching chillingly silent footage from assorted flying spy craft (smaller and smaller) that help make these strikes so seemingly fool-proof.

And once we’ve risen from the edge of our seats to leave the theater, Hood and screenwriter Guy Hibbert keep us focused on the ethical debate at the heart of the melodrama, making us rethink “fool-proof,” and our impatience even as we grouse at the overly patient Brits who aren’t necessarily more moral than us — just more worried about appearances.

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MPAA Rating: R for some violent images and language

Cast: H3len Mirren, Alan Rickman, Aaron Paul, Barkhad Abdi, Jeremy Northam, Aisha Takow
Credits: Directed by Gavin Hood, script by Guy Hibbert. A Bleecker St. release.

Running time: 1:42

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