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Peter Travers: ‘Eye in the Sky’ asks if Conscience still Figures in Modern Warfare

Helen Mirren and Aaron Paul debate the merits of drone warfare in this torn-from-the-headlines drama

Peter Travers Mar 19, 2016
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Helen Mirren in 'Eye in the Sky'. Photo: Keith Bernstein

Helen Mirren in ‘Eye in the Sky’. Photo: Keith Bernstein

[rating=3] | Helen Mirren, Aaron Paul, Alan Rickman | Directed by Gavin Hood

It’s a setup for a moral debate on drone warfare. That Eye in the Sky is nowhere near that dry and academic is a tribute to director Gavin Hood (Tsotsi), who uses a tight script, by Guy Hibbert, to hold us in a vise and keep squeezing. The suspense is killer as military minds in the US and the UK come together only to lock horns on a drone operation in Nairobi.

In one corner, there’s Katherine Powell (a dynamite Helen Mirren), a British army colonel ready to order a U.S. military drone to target a Somali terrorist organization believed to include two British citizens and one American. Cue the complication: Alia (Aisha Takow), a young Kenyan girl is selling bread in the kill zone.

Cut to a strategy room in London where Lt. Gen. Frank Benson (Alan Rickman) pushes for a go-ahead. But the buck needs to be passed to the Foreign Secretary (Iain Glen) and upward. A debate swirls: Is saving one child worth the potential death of hundreds or should the child be written off as collateral damage?

In another corner, Vegas-based drone pilot Steve Watts (Aaron Paul) hesitates about pushing a button that will blow away Alia. Barkhad Abdi, an Oscar nominee for Captain Phillips, beautifully plays an agent on the ground in Nairobi who tries to rescue the girl as the clock keeps ticking.

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Eye in the Sky asks a provocative question: Does conscience still figure in modern warfare? Rickman, in his last onscreen role, takes on the issue with the brilliance and bracing humanity that marked his career. His final scene, a passionate declaration about what a military man really knows of war, is one of his finest moments as an actor. Rickman deserves our salute, as does a film that honors his fierce intelligence.

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