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‘Eye in the Sky’ review: Helen Mirren faces tough decision on wartime ethics

Helen Mirren faces some difficult moral dilemmas in

Helen Mirren faces some difficult moral dilemmas in "Eye in the Sky." Photo Credit: TNS / Bleecker Street Media

PLOT Soldiers, commanders and politicians debate whether bombing a terrorist bunker is worth the life of an innocent girl.

CAST Helen Mirren, Aaron Paul, Alan Rickman.

LENGTH 1:42

RATED R (Violence and language.)

PLAYING AT Cinema Arts Centre, Huntington; Malverne Cinema 4; Manhasset Cinemas; and Raceway 10, Westbury.

BOTTOM LINE A well-intentioned drama about wartime ethics, but the film’s own morality is more dubious than it realizes.

“Eye in the Sky” is a drama about modern-day warfare that hinges on an age-old ethical question: If you could save hundreds of lives by killing one innocent person, would you do it?

This isn’t an academic debate for British Col. Katherine Powell, played by a no-nonsense Helen Mirren. As the film opens, she’s facing a pretty good day at the office: A radicalized British turncoat has finally been located in a safe house in Kenya. An American drone pilot in Las Vegas, Steve Watts (Aaron Paul), watches from the sky while a local operative, Jama Farah (Barkhad Abdi, “Captain Phillips”), keeps tabs on the ground. The mission is to capture, not to kill, and things look promising.

That changes when Jama’s smart-phone-operated drone, small as a beetle, peeks into the house and sees two suicide bombers preparing explosive vests. Now Col. Powell wants to blow the place to bits, never mind that it sits in a populated area. Lt. Gen. Frank Benson (the late Alan Rickman, deliciously dry as ever) is of the same mind, but there’s another wrinkle: Standing right near the targeted house is a little girl, Alia (Aisha Takow), selling her daily bread.

Directed by Gavin Hood (“Ender’s Game”) and written by Guy Hibbert, “Eye in the Sky” is a well-intentioned film that wants to boil down the complicated morality of drone warfare to a choice we can easily understand: It’s either a deadly shopping-mall explosion somewhere, or this one little girl. There’s little concern, however, over the many non-adorable civilians nearby, or the fact that anyone could unexpectedly stroll into the line of fire. The focus on Alia seems reductive and oversentimental, and the eventual ticking-clock situation — can Steve hold off firing his missile until she sells her last loaf of bread? — begins to feel contrived.

Because its central dilemma is somewhat limited, “Eye in the Sky” spins its wheels while countless politicians — worried more about bad press than about conscience — pass the buck and stall for time. That may not make for gripping drama, but it does lend the film a touch of realism.

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