Eye In The Sky

As effective as it is emotive, drone drama Eye in the Sky ratchets up the tension and the friction around modern political warfare.

I wish I could say it drones on, but Gavin Hood’s film is pretty smart, even when it’s dealing in vague cliches.

Helen Mirren plays a British colonel conducting a mission from the bunker of HQ at Northwood. If this film is to be believed – and it does a fair job of convincing you to take it for real – modern war is like a conference call, with various parties able to join in and watch events on laptops around the world.

So Dame Colonel Helen is orchestrating the capture, in a house in a Nairobi suburb, of a white British Muslim woman turned international terrorist while Major General Alan Rickman, in what turned out to be his last film role, is talking Government ministers through it all in Whitehall.

There’s a Kenyan commander patched in on the call, his ground troops ready to wade in and we’ve also got the US army piloting the drone from a base in Nevada, Breaking Bad’s Aaron Paul taking the controls.

Most importantly, the man on the ground is Barked Abdi, the Somalian actor who took over the ship in Capt Phillips. Now he’s a double agent spy sort of chap, operating tiny drones in the shape of a humming bird and a flying beetle, which peek into enemy houses and show what’s going on.

Which is: nasty Muslims gearing up for a suicide bombing raid.

Ok, says Colonel Helen, we’re going to bomb the lot of them. But they can’t send in the drone missile because there’s a cute little girl selling bread just outside the terrorists’ compound.

Despite this overly-cute plot device, the film flits about niftily to show the tortuous political and moral hoops being jumped through and the decisions being made, and not made. We get to grips with current vernacular – “refer up”, “ROEs” (that’s rules of engagement, to you), “PID” (positive identification), CDE – no? come on: collateral damage estimate. Easy.

The evasive politicians contrast with the practicalities of attorneys and the tough pragmatism of the military. Helen wants her woman badly. The Brits prevaricate and debate; the White House would blow everything to smithereens if it was up to them. We even refer up to the Foreign Secretary at a trade conference (Ian Glenn), who’s got a touch of Beijing Belly and has to be interrupted on the loo.

Even with the schematic set-up and the crude characterisation, Hood makes it work, ticking over in what feels like real time and taking us through the agonies of decisions – making the business of modern warfare look grubby, remarkable, vicious, ridiculous, technologically amazing and horrifically lethal. It’s the first war movie I can recall to feel quite so accurate, and as such it’s definitely one to hone in on.

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