Droning On and On: ‘Eye in the Sky’ Goes For Easy Laughs

Helen Mirren in the dramatic thriller Eye in the Sky.

Helen Mirren in the dramatic thriller Eye in the Sky. (Photo: Keith Bernstein / Bleecker Street)

Confusing, high-minded and heavy as a concrete boulder, Eye in the Sky aims to deliver a relevant warning about drone warfare and modern military ethics, but despite the presence of such stalwarts as Helen Mirren and the late Alan Rickman, its eye is on the dirt floor of dullness.

(2/4 stars)

Written: Guy Gibbert
Directed by:
Gavin Hood
Starring: Helen Mirren, Aaron Paul and Alan Rickman
Running time: 102 min.

After British and American agents in Nairobi detect two criminally radicalized Brits and one American joining a secret organization of Al-Shabaab terrorists in Somalia, they plan to capture and bring them back to England to stand trial, but before they can make their move, they view a live video of the culprits planning a suicide attack that will kill innocent civilians. While the clock ticks like a time bomb, Helen Mirren is the tough colonel coordinating the military operation from strategy headquarters in London who wants to wipe out the terrorists in a drone strike, Aaron Paul is the drone pilot working from Las Vegas, and Alan Rickman is Mirren’s boss, a British lieutenant general watching the whole thing on a high-tech surveillance screen. She wants permission to shoot and kill before the suicide bombers have time to attack, but she is thwarted at every turn by the political protocol that drowns crucial multinational military missions in red tape. Worried about bad PR if the images of a missile attack in a foreign country end up on YouTube, the chain of responsibility leads to the British foreign secretary, who is in Singapore attending a trade fair while suffering a bout of food poisoning, and the U.S. secretary of state, who is playing in a Beijing ping-pong tournament.

Just when they get the green light, the drone pilot spots trouble on his monitor: a little girl has suddenly posted herself outside the terrorists’ safe house to sell bread. The moral question everyone debates: Which is more important—the lives of hundreds of people in a shopping mall or the life of one child used as collateral damage? With elements of black humor, the mood shifts to political satire, but Eye in the Sky is no Dr. Strangelove, and director Gavin Hood (Tsotsi) is no Stanley Kubrick.

Screenwriter Guy Hibbert strangles Eye in the Sky with too much military double talk and throws in too many ethical dilemmas for the viewer to digest. By suggesting that wars can be lost to protect cowardly, indecisive reputations from the Internet, the movie loses balance in shameless contrivances. (Rickman takes time off from altering the course of world history to shop for a perfect toy for his daughter.) What could have been a disturbing treatise on how wars are fought in the digital age ends up a simplistic commentary on how movies sacrifice pertinent issues for the sake of a laugh. Considering the militant enthusiasm of so many hawks today, the laughs at the screening I attended sounded more strident than convincing.

Droning On and On: ‘Eye in the Sky’ Goes For Easy Laughs