Director Gavin Hood’s military drama takes place largely in real time. Colonel Katherine Powell (Helen Mirren) arrives at an underground military base in the UK and receives intel that three of the most wanted terrorists in the world have been tracked down to a house in Nairobi. She speaks to representatives of the UK Government in London and American drone operators to order a strike on the house. All is on plan until a young girl is spotted selling bread within the expected blast radius. Will anyone be prepared to give the order to kill the terrorists, and almost certainly save multiple lives, if it means definitely killing one child?
Working from a sleek script by Guy Hibbert, Hood presents difficult ethical puzzles, but he doesn’t get weighed down in chin-stroking stodge. This moves with the velocity of a thriller, briskly and clearly edited as we flash around the world, watching politicians pass the buck for fear of being labelled as child-killers in the press and army personnel trying to make them see the larger picture, the time to actually do something useful quickly ticking away.
As an audience we’re given no helping hand in deciding who to side with, because there is no right answer. Launch or abort, both decisions will result in death – but in one case they can see the face of the victim; in the other those faces are not yet known. It’s a new kind of war movie. We’re used to such things involving men with guns running at each other, but modern war is fought by people with high-tech cameras and long-range missiles watching from miles away.
Casting across the board is first-rate. Mirren is such a capable presence that we feel all her frustration at having her pragmatic approach muddied by people more senior and less intelligent. The late, great Alan Rickman gets lots of opportunity to be withering as a soldier babysitting nervy British politicians. Aaron Paul quietly carries most of the emotional weight as the grunt who’ll have to launch the missile. It’s a riveting thriller in which nobody’s hands get dirty, but everyone’s are covered in blood.