Drone warfare is a moral gray area, and this movie is on it. Gavin Hood’s Eye in the Sky stands alongside Drones and Good Kill as the cinematic equivalent of online commenters shouting “First!” on a hot topic but not bothering to say anything new or insightful about it. As with the Iraq War pre–Hurt Locker, our reliance on remote-controlled death planes to snuff out enemies of the state from halfway around the world has yet to produce a great movie. Anyone know what Kathryn Bigelow’s up to?
Eye in the Sky sets its sights on a planned strike in Kenya that, besides taking out a few high-profile targets about to embark on a suicide mission, likely will result in the death of a little girl selling bread near the point of impact. Key players confined to cold, official rooms on different continents realize the danger just in time to debate whether or not to move forward anyway: Helen Mirren is the trigger-happy colonel hoping to fire now and ask questions never, Alan Rickman is a lieutenant general tasked with convincing governmental higher-ups of the strike's urgency, and Aaron Paul is one of two reluctant pilots actually controlling the drone from a base in Las Vegas. (Will this actor ever be spared moral conundrums in the desert?) This is the banality of necessary (?) evil in 2016. The problem with movies depicting the banality of anything, of course, is that they tend to be pretty banal themselves; in setting out to be the exception to that rule, Eye in the Sky only proves it.
Accounting for nearly half the film, the centerpiece sequence begins in earnest with Mirren sending an IM to Rickman — not to ask his a/s/l but to alert him that things are a go on her end. Rickman then argues with a room full of suits over the legal and political implications of the strike for the remainder of his time onscreen. Everyone involved is looking for plausible deniability should things go awry, passing a buck that never stops in a less funny, overlong version of Dr. Strangelove's “You can’t fight in here! This is the war room!” scene.
It’s the war on terror as backroom chamber drama, a who-watches-the-watchmen descent into moral culpability in a system designed to avoid it. But Eye in the Sky engages these questions with such inelegance that its main resonance comes from featuring the late Rickman’s final in-the-flesh performance. An early scene in which he deadpans that there’s “apparently an important difference” between the doll he meant to buy for his daughter and the one he actually purchased stands out not only for providing one of the few moments of levity but also for having nothing to do with the plot. It's a rare moment that actually feels like something that might happen to a real person rather than a politically charged construct.
Barkhad “I’m the captain now” Abdi compels as an embedded operative contriving to remove that innocent little girl from the blast radius without blowing his own cover. He and others are equipped with 007-style gadgetry that occasionally threatens to make the movie visually interesting, from lethally accurate facial-recognition software to a tiny, remote-controlled camera that any passersby would swear is a hummingbird. You’d think a bird’s-eye view would afford the filmmakers a more insightful perspective, but Eye in the Sky demonstrates the difference between looking and seeing.