Helen Mirren Leads Charge In Outstanding "Eye In The Sky"

2016 may not see a more astute piece of casting than Helen Mirren in “Eye In The Sky.”

The Oscar-winning actress lends a shrewd blend of magnetism and ferocity to the role of Colonel Katherine Powell, a hawkish military commander that might have come off as a monster in the hands of any other actor. But Mirren’s performance is a model of depth, an ideal anchor point for a modern-day war movie painted almost exclusively in shades of gray.

From her post in England, Powell is tasked with overseeing the drone-led capture of a group of Al-Shabaab extremists holed up in a Kenyan safehouse. With drone pilots Steve Watts (Aaron Paul, AMC’s “Breaking Bad”) and Carrie Gershon (Phoebe Fox, Channel 4’s “Black Mirror) stationed in Las Vegas, undercover agent Jama Farah (Barkhad Abdi, “Captain Phillips“) on the ground in Nairobi, and a local police force prepared to rush in, Powell begins the process of confirming her targets’ identities.

Except, there’s a wrinkle.

Video bug surveillance reveals that the extremists are preparing for an imminent suicide bombing that could cost upward of 80 lives.

The Colonel scrambles to change the mission’s objective from “capture” to “kill,” an act requiring approval from higher up the command chain because of potential collateral damage. This proves complicated.

Powell’s immediate superior Lieutenant General Frank Benson (Alan Rickman) finds himself instantly at odds with a group of British politicos, all stuffed in a room together. As they drink in the live surveillance footage, one after the other defers on up the chain, all while the situation on the ground becomes more and more dire. First with confirmation that multiple “most wanted” targets are inside the safehouse, and then with a young Kenyan girl setting up shop to sell bread inside the blast radius.

It’s not just Mirren who turns in a superb performance. Rickman (who passed away in January) is unsurprisingly wonderful in his final live-action role, giving audiences one last taste of his delectable voice and unsubtle brow furrowing. And Barkhad Abdi, Aaron Paul, and Phoebe Fox all breathe considerable life into supporting players that could have gotten lost in the shuffle.

As director Gavin Hood breathlessly whooshes back and forth between them, the movie approximates the kind of scope normally associated with bigger productions. Accordingly, the movie can be taken as a nail-biting procedural that presents a hellish military operation as it might occur.

But Guy Hibbert’s excellent screenplay also sidles up to dark comedy. As the political infighting rises, threatening to obscure the gravity of the dilemma at hand, the movie neatly morphs into a lightly comic riff on “12 Angry Men” and “Glengarry Glen Ross.” The script is dialogue-heavy but never boring, at once accessible and sharp, bringing out every possible viewpoint without much in the way of judgment – a morality play minus the allegory.

The narrative has so many moving parts that a less coherent final product might have been forgivable. The filmmakers have been put in the unenviable position of having most of their main characters entirely out of harm’s way. And the young girl at the heart of the story gets only a few lines of dialogue.

But somehow the picture is always thrilling, unloading tense moment after tense moment, easily covering over a few instances of subpar CGI and a first act that doesn’t move as quickly as it should.

Director Gavin Hood first hit the scene in 2005 with South African drama “Tsotsi,” only to take a massive step back with the dismal “X-Men Origins: Wolverine” and the pedestrian “Ender’s Game.” “Eye In The Sky” sees him not only back in his comfort zone, but making compelling cinema that’s not quite like anything else out there. If smaller movies are that much more his speed, moviegoers can only hope that he stays there for the foreseeable future. Armed with a terrific cast and suspense and poignancy to spare, his long-awaited return to independent film is a keeper.

-J. Olson

Rating: ★★★★ out of ★★★★★ (Very Good)

Release Date: March 11, 2016 (Limited)
Studio: Bleecker Street
Director: Gavin Hood
Screenwriter: Guy Hibbert
Starring: Helen Mirren, Aaron Paul, Alan Rickman, Barkhad Abdi, Jeremy Northam, Iain Glen, Phoebe Fox
MPAA Rating: R (for some violence images and language)