“Eye in the Sky,” from the ever reliable South African filmmaker Gavin Hood, begins with what seems like an odd focus. Going in, you’re probably aware this is a war movie, or perhaps a better term would be a thriller revolving around terrorists, remote surveillance and drone warfare.
But Hood’s initial scenes show a family enclosure in the sunbaked slums of Nairobi, Kenya, the mother pulling loaves of bread from a clay oven, the father taking in bikes for repair and their little girl playing with a hula hoop he has just mended.
These subtitled scenes of this domestic quotidian life, clearly taking place in a part of the city fraught with strife — the little girl will later take the loaves to sell on a nearby street patrolled by armed militia with hardened faces — seem more like the beginning of film programmed in an international film festival than a thriller starring the likes of Helen Mirren, Aaron Paul and Alan Rickman.
Yet this is absolutely the vital place for Hood to begin his film since the little girl (played by Aisha Takow) proves to be the central figure in a movie in which she has no more than perhaps a dozen lines.
For when the movie about remote surveillance and drone warfare kicks in, she is the focus of an ethical debate that rages through locations in London, Singapore, Las Vegas and Hawaii that basically boils down to this: should this innocent child die in order to prevent the possible — nay, probable — deaths of scores of people at the hands of a suicide bomber?
In the abstract, the question seems like it should be easily answered. But in the presence of this sweet and happy child helping her family eke out a meager living in a hardscrabble urban environment, this dilemma, rigorously debated by soldiers, politicians, technicians and government ethicists, becomes increasingly difficult.
The movie, written by Guy Hibbert (“Five Minutes of Heaven,” “Omagh”) certainly doesn’t make it easy on the little girl.
After tracking a British citizen turned terrorist for several years, Mirren’s Col. Katherine Powell has seemingly located her in a safe house for Al-Shabaab militants in that Nairobi slum. On-the-ground Intel believes three terrorists on the U.S. “most wanted” list in Africa will meet with two new recruits, one an American, in that house.
Col. Powell heads a U.K.-based operation to capture those terrorists under the surveillance of a drone flown by a U.S. pilot outside Las Vegas, Paul’s Steve Watts. Sitting in an office in Whitehall to watch the capture is her commanding officer, Rickman’s Gen. Benson, the attorney general and other government officials.
Nearby in Nairobi, Special Forces troops are poised to raid the house and capture its occupants. Then Col. Powell demands a closer look. A local man (Barkhad Abdi, Oscar nominated as the Somali pirate in “Captain Phillips”), operating a “beetle” drone from a small tablet, maneuvers the device inside the house.
The colonel is now able to fully substantiate the terrorists’ identities via computer imaging of their faces. Only at this point, however, she and the other onlookers discover something horrifying: a suicide vest the group is preparing to strap on one of the newcomers for an imminent attack.
This forces Col. Phillips to put the Special Forces on hold. The mission has escalated from “capture” to “kill.” Then that little girl enters the kill zone. So the American pilot, under the rules of engagement, refuses the British colonel’s order to pull the trigger and launch a missile from his drone.
As the clock is ticking, the debate about whether to change the mission and what to do about the child rages around the world. This all requires decisions to be “referred up,” which means summoning the U.K. foreign minister in Singapore, where he’s been waylaid by food poisoning; the American secretary of state playing diplomatic ping-pong in Beijing; and finally an unseen British PM on the European continent.
All the while you, in the audience, must wrestle with the same dilemma: what would I do if I had the power to give an okay to kill a nine-year-old so others might survive but with no guarantees?
Meanwhile, in very credible suspense sequences, the op on the ground uses his wits to try to get the little girl out of the kill zone without attracting the militants’ attention.
The debate is made no easier by the simple facts of today’s propaganda wars on social media: What if, for instance, the American pilot does kill the terrorists with a missile hit from the drone, thereby killing an American and a British citizen by the way, yet also kills the girl?
The internet will light up with damnation of both countries for the loss of this innocent life, not to mention its own citizens. But if the terrorists go ahead and kill 80, the condemnation will fall on them, not any British or Yank politician.
So the “easier” thing might be to let the terrorists have their day. It’s a cynical thing to contemplate but that doesn’t make it any less true.
Switching madly from locations around the globe — Megan Gill’s editing is terrific throughout — the movie tracks the debate as much as it does the movements of the girl, soldiers on the street, activity in the safe house and efforts by the local man to lure the girl to safety.
Never has a movie been able to wring so much tension from shots of people staring at screens and computer monitors. The characters are humanized just enough and the actors superb in making their viewpoints spring from character as much as philosophical differences.
Mirren is all let’s-get-this-job-done while Rickman, in one of his last roles, didn’t get to the rank of general without understanding the role caution plays in political decisions. Paul goes by-the-books even if it means throwing that book at a colonel 8,000 miles away.
While others with fierce intelligence advocate for the girl, the politicians certainly must weigh how this will affect their careers while the image analyst comes under extraordinary pressure to downgrade the girl’s chances of death to 45%.
This is the second film I’m aware of to tackle the thorny issue of drone warfare. Andrew Niccol’s “Good Kill,” which came out briefly last year (and tanked), shows what happens when you go into this morally gray area with ideas already made up — you get a predigested, ham-fisted harangue against the whole messy business without carefully working through all the logic, morality and combat exigencies.
“Eye in the Sky” avoids easy answers in favor of what amounts to a thoughtful, rigorous conversation with its audience about these moral quandaries. While the movie may or may not change whatever beliefs you take into the theater with you, you can bet it will shake those beliefs more than a little.
Opens: March 11, 2016 (Bleecker Street)
Production companies: Entertainment One Features, Raindog Films
Cast: Helen Mirren, Aaron Paul, Alan Rickman, Barkhad Abdi, Aisha Takow
Director: Gavin Hood
Screenwriter: Guy Hibbert
Producers: Ged Doherty, Colin Firth, David Lancaster
Executive producers: Xavier Marchand, Benedict Carver, Anne Sheehan, Claudia Bluemhuber, Guy Hibbert, Stephen Wright
Director of photography: Haris Zambarloukos
Production designer: Johnny Breedt
Music: Paul Hepker, Mark Kilian
Costume designer: Ruy Filipe
Editor: Megan Gill
R rating, 102 minutes