You need to watch the best war thriller on Netflix before it’s released this week
In February 2022, the US military conducted a drone strike in Somalia against al-Shabaab. Although the government has said the attack was successful and no civilians were injured, much is unknown about it. Things are rarely clear in the fog of war, especially when viewed from above.
February’s strike looks a lot like Gavin Hood’s 2015 strike eye in the sky, which asks whether the Americans should launch a drone strike against al-Shabaab in a sparsely populated part of Kenya. While eye in the sky consists mostly of people sitting and chatting, these are fascinating conversations in rooms where life and death are constantly weighed.
eye in the sky fits the whole complicated and controversial concept of drone warfare into a single mission. It’s international in every way, being led by British Army Colonel Katherine Powell (Helen Mirren) and Royal Marines General Frank Benson (Alan Rickman), piloted remotely by American pilot Steve Watts (Aaron Paul) and observed on the ground by Kenyan agent Jama Farah (Barkhad Abdi).
Their mission begins peacefully, with an MQ-9 Reaper being used for surveillance as the team prepares to invade a house where al-Shabaab members are meeting. Colonel Powell is particularly eager to arrest a radicalized British national, and Farah releases a tiny flying camera that resembles a beetle to enter the house.
The mission then becomes more serious. Al-Shabaab operatives appear to be grooming suicide bombers to come out and kill themselves, potentially taking dozens of people with them. Powell and Benson felt the immediate need to act, but they had to convince their non-military supervisors in the British cabinet (including The iron Throne‘ Iain Glen as Foreign Secretary).
Meanwhile, the audience follows the journey of Alia, a young girl who enjoys hula-hooping and secretly learning math, as she goes through an ordinary day of selling bread. Without any idea of the danger inside, she settles in front of the house that Steve is about to destroy with a Hellfire missile.
Alia’s presence triggers talks within the government. Military officials are focused on their mission but anxious to find legal cover, while politicians assess both the legal and political costs of their action or inaction. Who would win the propaganda war if suicide bombers killed dozens? Or if the British government authorized the murder of a young girl in a friendly country as collateral damage?
As the talks drag on, Powell grows impatient. She challenges her on-the-ground legal counsel and tries to figure out how to reduce the probability of Alia’s death from 65% to something in the 1940s. She faces opposition, including from Steve, the man in the pilot’s chair, who strapped in to the girl he saw hula-hooping through a camera thousands of miles away.
While Eye takes the time to ask questions, it never slows down for them. The clock is still ticking, which makes the film feel like an adaptation of John le Carré. Le Carré, the classic spy novelist, has always been curious about what the men and women who operate behind the scenes think and feel, and there is no one more out of sight than the people who take decisions here.
Beyond his moral problems, eye in the sky also has the distinction of being Rickman’s last live-action role before his death. While Frank Benson won’t be remembered as Hans Grueber or Severus Snape, Rickman is in fine form here. While in the background, Rickman gets a chance to get all worked up like only he could, watching in confusion as he tries to buy a doll to help an unnamed baby sleep. It’s the only comedic beat in the movie, and it’s delicious.
eye in the sky is a serious story about a situation that is rarely talked about. Just a few years before the film was released, the United States was investing heavily in African drone operations. It’s a technology worth understanding, and eye in the sky captures the inherent danger, drama and tragedy that can be found within.
eye in the sky is on Netflix until May 12.