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Helen Mirren leads an intense war thriller in ‘Eye in the Sky’

Helen Mirren stars as Col. Katherine Powell in “Eye in the Sky.”
Helen Mirren stars as Col. Katherine Powell in “Eye in the Sky.” Bleecker Street

How many phone calls does it take to justify writing off an innocent young girl in Kenya as collateral damage in a war on terror? How many government officials need to clear her potential death?

Gavin Hood’s tense “Eye in the Sky” explores that question – and others that are now a part of modern warfare, where drones are the weapon of choice.

Col. Katherine Powell (Helen Mirren) has been hunting two Islamic extremists for a year, one a British citizen formerly named Susan Danford (Lex King). Finally, she gets enough intel to deduce that they will be in Nairobi to recruit a British and American teen to their cause. Powell sets in motion a drone surveillance mission that is meant to help capture those she has spent so much time watching. But circumstances soon escalate, and her goal is no longer to capture, but to kill.

In her single-minded mission, Powell brings together men and women in uniform far away – an American drone pilot (Aaron Paul) and his new partner (Phoebe Fox), plus a group of high-level British officials (including Alan Rickman in his final screen performance) – who will ultimately decide the fate of Powell’s targets, as well as that of the little girl, who wanders into the drone strike space to sell bread.

The possibility of death or grave injury as collateral damage is debated back and forth. Is it OK to potentially kill a little girl if it means saving so many more people in the future?

“Eye in the Sky” is about the effects of fighting a war from the comfort of our home countries, rather than on the ground.

On one hand, the troops get to sit in safe zones on military bases, staring at computer screens. Higher-ups can pass the buck because the immediacy of war is not felt. The military’s goal – get the target – is so much more singular when the consequences feel so removed from human life. When it’s all over, they get to go home.

But, as Rickman’s Lt. Gen. Benson says, “Never tell a soldier that he does not know the cost of war.” Paul’s Steve Watts may get to go back to his Las Vegas apartment, but that does not mean the weight of what he has done all night does not come home with him.

“Eye in the Sky” is best when it delves into the moral ambiguity of war, especially war’s new gray zones. Its scenes of these ambiguous military actions – mostly viewed on screen and through Orwellian cameras that can secretly make their way into private homes – work especially well because of the performances from the ensemble cast.

Mirren is icy and fierce. Rickman brings both levity and sorrow to his role as a soldier who has seen war from both sides: the conference room and battlefield. Paul, who was so good at playing tense scenes in “Breaking Bad,” perfectly conveys what it is like to push a button and know that you’re responsible for the death of countless people, many of whom had no idea they should not have gone to the market that day.

“Eye in the Sky” is disturbing, but it’s also balanced and ambivalent about what is right. If there’s one stance the movie firmly takes, it’s that no matter how far away people are from the battlefield, no one comes away unscathed.

Eye in the Sky

Movie review

Cast: Helen Mirren, Alan Rickman, Aaron Paul

Director: Gavin Hood

102 minutes

Rating: R (violent images and language)

Opens: Friday, April 1

Check movie times at calendar.fresnobee.com/movies.aspx

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