Wednesday's opening film at the Gasparilla International Film Festival is Eye in the Sky, a war-on-terror drama with two nifty twists.
One is the weaponry involved; armed drones piloted from a distance, a facet of war too new to be a cliche yet. The other is Helen Mirren's finger on the figurative trigger, a rare movie occasion of a woman in military charge. Her role was reportedly written for a man and barely changed by her casting.
Director Gavin Hood, who'll accompany his film Wednesday at Tampa Theatre, creates a crackerjack procedural in modern warfare, deftly explaining the technique and value of drone strikes and surveillance, from gliding bombers to a flitting, fake hummingbird. At the same time, Guy Hibbert's screenplay overbuilds a complex ethical dilemma of collateral damage, passing one or two bucks too many.
Mirren plays steely Col. Katherine Powell, scouring west Africa for terrorist activity. For years, Powell has chased a radicalized British citizen (Phoebe Fox), pinning her down in Kenya, visiting a busy neighborhood. The woman isn't alone. Using drones and facial recognition software, Powell confirms several terrorist leaders are also there, with suicide vests armed and ready.
Awaiting Powell's order to fire missiles is Lt. Steve Watts (Aaron Paul), but she first needs approval from Lt. Gen. Frank Benson (the late Alan Rickman, his last live-action performance). The general and various politicos spend the movie concerned about killing a British citizen in a friendly nation and complications from there. Hibbert's script piles on ethical conundrums, none tenser than Watts'.
At a crucial moment, Watts' camera spies a child (Aisha Takow) selling bread within his missile's estimated blast zone. She'll be maimed at the very least. The pilot refuses to fire, forcing Powell to obtain higher approval. That may allow time for the child to leave safely, or for the suicide bombers to escape. Hood keeps the tension humming, in a plausible scenario that isn't played cheaply.
Eye in the Sky remains gripping even when Hibbert tosses in one or two side-taking circumstances too many. Each performance is keenly observed, with Mirren playing slightly against gender, not impersonating a man's authority but imposing it upon a woman, in essence corrupting her.
Paul is solid in the pilot's dramatically confined quarters, staring at video screens. Eye in the Sky is more gripping with its boots on the ground, where a local surveillance operative (Barkhad Abdi) takes increasing risks, using a flying beetle drone. Abdi proves his Oscar nominated Captain Phillips debut wasn't a fluke.
The movie's constant thief, however, is Rickman. What a pleasure to see his dour face one more time, and hear that tired, rumbling voice. In addition to hunting terrorists, the general needs a child's birthday present. Hearing Alan Rickman recite baby doll features is an amusing new memory of a sadly missed performer.
Contact Steve Persall at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8365. Follow @StevePersall.