The filmmaker Gavin Hood has always had an interest in protagonists who find themselves in morally ambiguous circumstances. He broke big in 2006 after his film “Tsotsi” won the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar. That film is about a young South African gang member trying to care for the baby he accidentally picked up during an armed robbery, and it’s smart, insightful, and at times beautiful. It also earned Hood, a native South African, a ticket to Hollywood.
But the studios are only so interested in opacity, and Hood’s films, though ambitious, haven’t had the same sort of success since then. The complexity of movies like “Rendition” and “Ender’s Game” were smoothed over by simplicity, and his superhero movie, “X-Men Origins: Wolverine,” is unmemorable at best.
What a pleasant surprise, then, that his new film, “Eye in the Sky,” is a return to form. It deals with an intense, timely subject matter, it’s sharp and thrilling, and it manages to pose very serious questions that have no ethically or morally satisfying answers. Additionally, it’s smartly made, nicely acted, dry and funny, and it features one of the final turns from Alan Rickman. It is the sort of film we hope for but rarely actually receive.
Somewhere in England, Col. Katherine Powell (Helen Mirren) is leading a mission. She’s in a room littered with computer screens, directing an American drone that’s being piloted out of a trailer in Las Vegas by Steve Watts (Aaron Paul). An Army specialist is in Hawaii, running digital analysis of the mission. Sitting in a London office, surrounded by the British attorney general and several members of Parliament is Lt. General Frank Benson (Rickman), who has just bought his granddaughter the wrong present.
That last detail seems small, but it signifies just how far away from the situation all of these people actually are. Powell is coordinating everything, including a Kenyan army special forces team, and a pair of undercover agents, including Jama Farah, played by Barkhad Abdi, who was nominated for an Oscar for “Captain Phillips.”
There are several high-value targets convened in a house on the outskirts of town, but the Army can’t go in because the neighborhood is controlled by the Islamic group Al Shabaab. Powell and Benson see this as an opportunity to take down the leaders of a terrorist network, but there are complications.
The terrorists are clearly planning a major operation, so time is short, but just as Powell orders the attack, a 9-year-old girl, Alia (Aisha Takow), sets up a table and starts selling bread in an area where she will almost certainly be maimed or killed if the drone drops a missile on the house.
It’s a terrible situation for everyone, including the audience, which understands, inherently, the point that the members of the military are trying to make. Of course, it’s undoubtedly a tragedy that this little girl will suffer based on their decisions, but the likelihood is that these targets will kill and injure many more people if they’re left to escape.
There is no fog of war to be found in “Eye in the Sky.” Everything is in crystal-clear high definition. If there’s something hazy, it’s to be found in the bureaucracy of those in charge, who continually kick the decision up the political food chain, unwilling to be accountable for making a reprehensibly challenging decision.
To make matters worse (or, in the case of the narrative, even better), Hood and his screenwriter Guy Hibbert let us get to know Alia just enough. She’s a charming, sweet kid whose father is teaching her to read, despite the Sharia law he lives with. She deserves better.
By humanizing all of these characters, including the girl, the story forces us to consider the real meaning of collateral damage, once we’ve gotten to know exactly who will be damaged.
Hood ratchets up the tension and keeps it there. Though in many ways “Eye in the Sky” is about different people in different places talking to one another, it grabs hold and doesn’t let you go, leaving both the audience and the characters in an ethical quandary that has no right answer.