Uncomfortable questions about life and death in modern warfare

EYE IN THE SKY (15, 102 mins) Thriller/Action. Dame Helen Mirren, Aaron Paul, Alan Rickman, Barkhad Abdi, Phoebe Fox, Iain Glen, Jeremy Northam, Aisha Takow, Lex King. Director: Gavin Hood.

Alan Rickman in Eye In The Sky  PA/Entertainment One
Alan Rickman in Eye In The Sky PA/Entertainment One

Released: April 15 (UK & Ireland)

The art of modern warfare is no longer consigned to battlefields on the ground.

Devastating missile attacks, pinpointed by drones, have allowed politicians to strike at the heart of supposed terrorist networks without having to stare into the whites of the enemies’ eyes.

Yet with greater power comes crushing responsibility - all technology is prone to error and one misplaced explosion can be exploited as propaganda to intensify the cycle of violence.

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    “Revolutions are fuelled by postings on YouTube,” observes one nervous politician in Eye In The Sky, an intelligent and timely thriller that asks if there is such a thing as acceptable collateral damage in the pursuit of global freedom.

    Gavin Hood’s nerve-racking film, tightly scripted by Guy Hibbert, doesn’t have the answer to that complex moral conundrum.

    Instead, events on screen put the characters - and us - through the emotional wringer as a joint American and British taskforce decides if the slaughter of one innocent child is a tolerable consequence of neutralising a jihadist cell.

    Operation Cobra has been tracking radicalised British men and women linked to the Somali group al-Shabaab.

    One high-profile target, Susan Danford (Lex King), is under surveillance at a house in Kenya, monitored by agents including Jama Farah (Barkhad Abdi).

    Lieutenant General Frank Benson (Alan Rickman) takes control of the operation from London, while Foreign Secretary James Willett (Iain Glen), who is at an arms fair in Singapore, watches a live video feed from a US drone piloted by Steve Watts (Aaron Paul) in Nevada.

    At a command base in Sussex, Colonel Katherine Powell (Helen Mirren) has a direct link to Watts and explains that the objective is “to capture not kill”. When covert footage reveals targets in the house are wearing suicide vests primed for an imminent attack, priorities change.

    The clock is ticking and policitians on both sides of the Atlantic deliberate.

    Meanwhile, Watts and his spotter, Airman Carrie Gershon (Phoebe Fox), notice a nine-year-old girl (Aisha Takow) selling bread near the target house, who would be killed in a missile strike.

    Eye In The Sky is dedicated to Rickman.

    He delivers a tightly coiled performance as the go-between who needs political and legal assent before issuing his command.

    Mirren is in equally imperious form while Paul exudes the anguish of a man wrestling with the consequences of defying orders.

    Hibbert’s lean script envisions an almost tragi-comic contrast between the Brits, who repeatedly refer up the chain of command, and the unflinching Americans.

    This gallows humour dissipates some of the suffocating tension.

    With the precision of a drone missile, Hood’s film begs uncomfortable questions about matters of life and death, when they can be distilled to the squeeze of a joystick trigger in an air-conditioned cubicle thousands of miles from the intended kill zone.