“In war, truth is the first casualty.” The quote by Aeschylus opens the wartime thriller “Eye in the Sky,” and I assumed I knew what it meant, that lies are an inextricable part of conflict.
But in “Eye in the Sky,” it’s not that truth is knowingly sacrificed. It’s that different versions of truth can exist side by side, as military men and politicians weigh the pros and cons of going to war. What’s acceptable to one person may not be to another, and the simple press of a trigger ends up having enormous and complex ramifications.
What’s so impressive about Gavin Hood's film is that it deals with those issues in a complex and even-handed way while being an absolute nail-biter of a thriller that plays out in real time.
The screenplay by Guy Hibbert deftly brings together several different characters spread across the globe. In Nairobi, Kenya, high-value Islamic terrorists are gathering in a militia-protected safe house.
They’re being watched via a surveillance drone flying at 20,000 feet, the footage analyzed in England by British officers, including Col. Katherine Potter (Helen Mirren) and Gen. Frank Benson (the late Alan Rickman). Also watching from Nevada is Steve Watts (Aaron Paul), the pilot of the drone, which is equipped with Hellfire missiles.
Initially, the plan is to send in Kenyan special forces to capture the terrorists, which include British- and American-born citizens. But when their surveillance shows that the terrorists are preparing for an imminent suicide bombing, the British officers want to switch the mission objective from capture to kill. This sets off a series of arguments up and down the chain of command about what’s legal, and what’s politically acceptable, under the rules of engagement. And then things get really complicated when an innocent young girl selling bread inadvertently wanders into the kill zone.
“Eye in the Sky” finds suspense on every link of the chain. As Watts sweats in his tiny drone control room, his crosshairs hovering over the little girl, Rickman’s military man calmly argues with politicians uneasy with the consequences of their policies. As Mirren’s colonel tries to massage the intel to make the collateral damage estimates seem more acceptable, the terrorists load up vests with pipe bombs. It’s a ticking-clock scenario, and nobody seems to know what to do when the clock hits zero.
The performances are terrific across the board. Mirren’s role was originally written for a male actor, but her steely resolve plays so much better than if her character was the usual blustering military man — she’s a blade rather than a sledgehammer. Oscar nominee Barkhad Abdi (“Captain Phillips”) plays a resourceful Kenyan agent who tries to get the girl out of harm’s way without arousing the terrorists’ suspicions. In a movie full of people watching things on screens, he’s the one person actually there, fully aware of the human cost of these decisions.
In Rickman's last on-screen appearance, he plays a military man who calmly lays out the consequences of both action and inaction. (It’s also worth the price of admission just for an early scene in which Rickman shops for a doll for his daughter and gets to say the line, “You hear her babbling when it’s time for beddie-byes.”)
In the end, “Eye in the Sky” leaves us with no good answers. There’s no political message here, just a smart, thoughtful film about the consequences of long-distance warfare. And there’s a subtle, disquieting reminder that there’s one more link in the chain that extends from a control panel in Nevada to a target in the Third World — us, the public, in whose name these wars are carried out.