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Review: ‘Eye in the Sky’ flies high above a limp spring crop

Helen Mirren plays a British colonel willing to stop at almost nothing to subdue Islamic terrorists in East Africa in “Eye In the Sky.”
Helen Mirren plays a British colonel willing to stop at almost nothing to subdue Islamic terrorists in East Africa in “Eye In the Sky.” Bleecker Street

I’ll give you five reasons to see “Eye in the Sky.” If you aren’t convinced, read no further.

1. It offers one of Helen Mirren’s finest performances, as a British colonel willing to stop at almost nothing to subdue Islamic terrorists in East Africa.

2. It’s the last time you’ll see Alan Rickman. He plays her supervisor, a general who serves as liaison between military forces and her majesty’s government. He, too, stands out as a soldier who doesn’t let feelings interfere with a decision once he weighs the risks.

3. Remember Barkhad Abdi, who earned an Oscar nomination as a pirate in “Captain Phillips”? He plays a Somali in Kenya who keeps an eye out for terrorists on the ground.

4. Director Gavin Hood, shooting in his native South Africa, returns to the tense pacing of the Oscar-winning “Tsotsi.” He has made big-budget duds since then (“Ender’s Game,” “X-Men Origins: Wolverine”), but he’s back in form.

5. In a world full of recyclable superheroes and mindless “empowerment” comedies, we’re finally getting a movie about reality. We’re surrounded by surveillance and the threat of violence, and this film asks us to judge the proper balance between liberty and security — and the amount of collateral damage acceptable to maintain the latter.

In Guy Hibbert’s screenplay, Mirren’s colonel tracks a British citizen who converted to Islam and has been linked to Al-Shabaab terrorists. This British expatriate has been located in a house in Nairobi with four men: two Somali leaders of Al-Shabaab and young recruits from England and America.

A beetle-sized drone sent into the house shows the recruits filling vests with explosives and filming farewell messages before going to blow up noncombatants. The colonel insists the mission to capture terrorists be changed to a fatal strike. The general, in turn, must convince members of the British cabinet. They’re queasy because the explosion could kill innocent civilians — specifically a girl selling bread in the street, a character we’ve come to know.

Hood and Hibbert show how modern espionage depends on teamwork: Brits operating in multiple places, Americans doing the same, Africans at a base and in the field. Nobody has made a “how-we-chase-’em” story this gripping since “Zero Dark Thirty.”

The movie also examines all points of view. The general estimates the suicide bombers could kill 80 people, some of them children, and considers one girl a tragic but necessary tradeoff. The U.S. officer who has to fire a missile at the house (Aaron Paul) stalls as best he can: The sight of the little bread seller on his screen paralyzes his trigger finger.

Politicians waffle and pass responsibility to higher-ranking politicians, who mumble platitudes and pass it back. Britain’s Foreign Secretary (Iain Glen) has eaten bad shellfish, so a matter of international security gets diverted by intestinal problems. One decision-maker wonders whether “the war of propaganda” will tip to Britain’s advantage if the terrorists kill 80 Kenyans, or against England if the bread seller dies.

There’s no chance of a clear-cut outcome that will achieve justice, satisfy the world and leave all consciences untarnished. Such a thing is possible only in universes populated by Thor or Batman, not the world in which we live.

Cast: Helen Mirren, Alan Rickman, Aaron Paul, Barkhad Abdi.

Director: Gavin Hood.

Length: 102 minutes.

Rating: R (some violent images and language).

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