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Review: ‘Eye in the Sky’ complex, intelligent thriller

The two-edged sword of combating terrorism through unmanned strikes is the focus of “Eye in the Sky.” Helen Mirren stars as an all-business British colonel remotely leading a crucial drone operation to capture Islamic militants gathered in a secluded safe house in Nairobi, Kenya.

Oscar-winning director Gavin Hood and screenwriter Guy Hibbert deliver a morally complex thriller polished to a brilliant shine. British, Kenyan and American intelligence units, working together, keep the terrorists under reconnaissance using cameras on a missile-armed spy plane flying at 20,000 feet, their “Eye in the Sky.”

Three British political leaders and a general (the beloved Alan Rickman in his final live-action performance) are gathered in a handsome war room to oversee the strategy and celebrate the capture. But as the military team prepares to seize the terrorists on the ground, the commandos are discovered to be arming themselves with explosive vests for a massive suicide bombing attack.

As the mission hurriedly shifts from capturing the militants to terminating them with a Hellfire missile, a little Somali immigrant girl enters the kill zone to sell bread. That is, if the command structure can agree whether this is a capture or kill mission. The U.S. drone pilot played by Aaron Paul is troubled whether he should move his index finger from the joystick to the trigger button. The operation’s main man on the ground, a Kenyan intelligence agent (excellently played by Barkhad Abdi, an Oscar nominee for “Captain Phillips”) is the only personal witness to what a morally murky quagmire the mission has become.

Assassinating the militants could kill the innocent civilian, trading one problem for another. “Revolutions begin through YouTube videos,” the general says. Most troubling for the elected officials, there could be embarrassing political blowback. In the manner of “Dr. Strangelove,” wartime crisis is about to detonate, and it’s unclear who can defuse it. As the countdown timers on each side’s bombs tick down, the allies’ military and government operate like tightrope walkers, tiptoeing at the limit of the legal and tactical downfall a bad decision could trigger.

There’s a remarkable level of intelligence at work here. “Eye in the Sky” has the sort of high-tech knowingness about automated weapons hardware that Tom Clancy fans love. The film shows an impressive savvy when it comes to present-day equipment, from the function of a high-flying heavily armed MQ-9 Reaper drone to the blast effect of a Hellfire missile. And it moves into the fast-moving realm of 21st-century surveillance equipment, here presented as an amusingly mechanical hummingbird drone and a tiny, camera-rigged mechanical beetle.

Hibbert’s sharply informed script models the radicalized commandos on fact-based characters. In an era of loud, ugly and fragmented war films, it creates a movie far more thoughtful and challenging than we expect.

While the finale has the film’s single stumble against believability, it also has two of its most haunting images. A moment of surprising kindness comes from the film’s bad guys, while the setup for the war’s next battle elsewhere moves ahead like standard operating procedure. It shows that it’s very difficult to advance your interpretation of good without committing some evil along the way.

Eye in the Sky

 1/2

Cast: Helen Mirren, Aaron Paul, Alan Rickman, Barkhad Abdi, Jeremy Northam, Iain Glen, Phoebe Fox

Director: Gavin Hood

102 minutes

Rated R (violent images and language)

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