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Helen Mirren plays military intelligence officer Colonel Katherine Powell in Eye in the Sky.

Keith Bernstein

3 out of 4 stars

Title
Eye in the Sky
Written by
Guy Hibbert
Directed by
Gavin Hood
Starring
Helen Mirren, Aaron Paul and Alan Rickman
Genre
Thriller
Classification
14A
Country
USA
Language
English
Year
2016

A U.S. Air Force officer describes the art of modern warfare from up high, in which buttons are pushed and bombs are released, and the bull's eyes are clean, clinical obliterations: "Those little puffs on the target, they are just like thunder, back when I was a boy," he says. "Scared me a little, but they were a long way off."

Is this a scene from Eye in the Sky, a smart British thriller involving the knotty logistics and complicated morality of drone warfare? No, it is from 12 O'Clock High, a Second World War-set television series that ran in the mid-sixties. An early episode featured a young Peter Fonda as a high-flying savant who had never considered the carnage he was causing from his seat in a bomber's belly. The episode from 1964 was called The Sound of Distant Thunder. Now it is 2016, and the thundering today is more distant than ever.

The military and covert war-wagers are getting better and better at killing from farther and farther away, and filmmakers seem to be getting better and better in the drone-warfare genre. In 2014, we saw Andrew Niccol's Good Kill, starring Ethan Hawke as a brooding push-button bombardier who devastates targets in Afghanistan and Yemen from a portable metal hut outside Las Vegas. The film was earnest in its melodrama and monotonous in its message on the ugly dilemmas of fighting from afar.

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Gavin Hood's white-knuckler Eye in the Sky is leaner, meaner and better, dropping its payload on the bureaucracy and butt-covering involved with blowing up international terrorists from the air by remote control. "We have the ability to strike the target with considerable accuracy," Alan Rickman says in his final live-action film role as Lieutenant-General Frank Benson. He's referring to technology, but could be speaking about the tightness of this film's aim – a direct hit on the semi-absurdity of the political "kill chain" and the complications caused by differing opinions on what constitutes "acceptable" collateral damage.

While comparisons will inevitably be made to 1964's Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb, the less ambitious Eye in the Sky doesn't mean to match the satire and nuclear black comedy of Stanley Kubrick's Cold War classic. Then again, while there's no George C. Scott, Peter Sellers or bomb-riding cowboy in sight, the talent found among the cast of Eye in the Sky isn't exactly slim pickings.

The Oscar-nominated Barkhad Abdi from Captain Phillips is the Kenyan agent on the ground, and that's Helen Mirren as military intelligence officer Colonel Katherine Powell, a fatigues-wearing badass who's on the trail of a radicalized British woman who winds up in Kenya. The plan to capture her turns into an assassination mission when a meeting at a terrorist safe house reveals a suicide-bombing plot in the making.

But just as an American "pilot" is about to engage the target, a village girl hula-hoops her way into the kill zone, a civilian complication that sends shivers up and down an international chain of command that involves a British foreign secretary and a prime minister, too. The political buck-passing from all entertains and creates the film's time-sensitive tension.

Times have changed, but taking the responsibility to kill is still something most humans try to avoid, and a thunder can never be far enough away for comfort.

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