Way back in the early days of human civilisation – you know, before the invention of supermarkets, reality TV and tax avoidance schemes – warfare took place between actual human beings. People had to go onto the battlefield and meet their enemies face to face, before running them through with a spear or lopping their ugly heads off with a sword. In today's modern world, though – you know, a world in which a prat like David Cameron can become a prime minister and a twat like Kim Kardashian can become a "celebrity" – warfare has become remote an impersonal. Now you can sit in your comfy office in Washington or Whitehall and, at the push of a button, have a drone somewhere in the middle east shoot a missile that will blow your enemies into teeny tiny pieces, and you can still be at your elite private club for dinner by 8pm. And that's what we call progress.
Eye In The Sky is a very smart, timely and on the money thriller about the realities of modern drone warfare. From her secure bunker deep under the British Army base at Northwood, Colonel Katherine Powell (Mirren) is leading an operation to capture a group of terrorists in Nairobi, one of which is a radicalised British woman – Susan Danford (King), aka Ayesha al-Hady – who is on the top-five most-wanted list. The operation is being carried out via a drone that is being piloted from a US Air Force base outside Las Vegas in Nevada, and being watched online by members of the British Government's COBRA group form an office in London. The situation get complicated when a flying robot "bug" equipped with a camera (just wait to see one of these babies sent into the girls' locker room in the Porky's remake) into the terrorists' house and they are seen preparing suicide vests. A ground attack is far too dangerous, so do the military send in a Hellfire missile to take out the terrorists, possibly killing a few innocent bystanders – including a young girl who is just outside the target, selling bread? The matter quickly escalates into an international dispute and a moral debate over the right thing to do.
The dilema posed in Eye In The Sky – much of which plays out in real time – is topical and authentic. It's a gripping and confronting examination of decisions that are likely being made on a daily basis by those whom we put in charge of us. The question here is whether to launch the missile at the compound, killing the handful of terrorists inside and thereby preventing asuicide bombing that could potentially kill dozens if not hundreds of innocent people – but, of course, the strike itself might kill the young girl just outside the compound's wall. If they delay the missile strike to try to save the girl, the terrorists may leave the house, and it may be impossible to stop the suicide mission. A decision has to be made, and the clock is ticking.
Mirren is excellent as the hard-headed colonel, who simply wants to get on and do her job with as little political interference as possible. The film at times feels somewhat like a modern version of that jury-room classic 12 Angry Men, with each party pushing their own particular agenda. The British ministers keep playing politics, always deferring to someone else to make a decision lest they get the blame for any casualties, while the military types simply want to get on with the job and keep any casualties to an absolute minimum when eliminating the terrorist threat. The film, it must be said, really does belong to Rickman, who shines as General Frank Benson. He brings poise and gravitas to the role and is as watchable and compelling as he has always been – it's sad to think that this was his last film. As such, his final (perfectly delivered) line is a fitting sendoff: "Never tell a soldier that he does not know the cost of war." As war films go, Eye In The Sky is bang on target.