War movies aren't what they used to be. Forget about the trench, the foxhole, the cockpit. Instead we have darkened rooms with bright video screens, the unnatural habitat of pilots who guide drones and their lethal payloads toward targets thousands of miles away.
Drone warfare was the subject of the heavy-handed "Good Kill" and has a questionable cameo in the war-as-personal-adventure comedy "Whiskey Tango Foxtrot." But the superbly acted "Eye in the Sky," a taut nail-biter starring Helen Mirren, the late Alan Rickman and Aaron Paul, arrives as a fully involving drama about the new rules of engagement.
In lesser hands the deck would feel stacked, but Guy Hibbert's screenplay is thoughtful, piercing and laced with dark-comic absurdities. Under Gavin Hood's assured direction, the action pulses with moral quandary.
With an opening sequence centered on a young family in Nairobi, the film uses human detail to counter the notion of faceless "collateral damage." Behind her frontyard gate, 9-year-old Alia (Aisha Takow) displays a charming knack for the hula hoop — much to the fundamentalist horror of a visiting neighbor. In the market square, she sells her mother's fresh-baked bread, as she has many times before. But on this day, she unwittingly places herself at the center of an international debate over the logistics and ethics of a top-secret operation.
That dispute rages across four continents via phone tag, video conference and text message. In Britain, Mirren's laser-focused Col. Katherine Powell is more than ready to close the deal. The mission she heads has traced Al Shabab militants, including a British woman she's been pursuing for years, to a house in Nairobi, where they're preparing for a suicide bombing.
To Powell's profound frustration, her call for a missile strike hits roadblocks, first from Steve Watts (Paul), the American drone pilot under her command. Seeing on the screen in his Nevada bunker that Alia has wandered into the kill zone, he refuses to proceed until the risks and legality have been assessed.
Watts' high-ground anguish might at first feel overstated, but his sense of responsibility for this problematic "surgical strike" is brought into sharp relief as Powell's urgency escalates. By contrast, the lieutenant general she reports to (Rickman) is the picture of pained forbearance, surrounded by indecisive politicians who are reluctant to give the go-ahead. They ask penetrating questions along with image-conscious ones, weighing the propaganda value of dozens of suicide-bombing casualties against the potential death of one girl.
Amid the policy wrangling and a farcical round of "referring up" — this crowd's euphemism for passing the buck — heart-stopping scenes follow the mission's undercover operative (Barkhad Abdi of "Captain Phillips") on the streets of Nairobi.
Hood, who directed the Oscar-winning thriller "Tsotsi" and the not-so-thrilling "Rendition," deftly churns up the suspense without diluting the story's unsettling questions. If there are any answers, they're no less troubling as the movie draws us — horrified, fascinated, complicit — into the minute-by-minute, kill-or-be-killed deliberations.
'Eye in the Sky'
MPAA rating: R, for some violent images and language
Running time: 1 hour, 42 minutes
Playing: The Landmark, West Los Angeles; ArcLight, Hollywood