War films typically come in two kinds: straightforward action shows that depict heroism or have a satisfactory outcome, and those where conflicting motives produce uncertain outcomes.
History also judges specific wars into those that had some justification and those that could have been avoided.
The more recent the war, the more likely its treatment will try to reflect prevailing public opinion.
The Cold War against communism, most recently depicted in Bridge of Spies, was plain black-and-white, but with few battlefield casualties.
The war against Islamic terrorism has proved more ambiguous in movie depictions, with plenty of acts of heroism, but frustration caused by the lack of success.
The once dominant moralistic anti-war films, that preached pacifism as a response to violent threats to society, have disappeared. But this doesn’t mean film-makers have avoided sensitive issues or are not prepared to challenge prevailing views.
Eye in the Sky (Entertainment One) is a tense thriller built around the “rules of engagement” and proportionate response to suspected threats.
It features advanced surveillance and intelligence-gathering techniques, including pilotless drones that remove many combatants from the battlefield.
Triggers for military strikes are pulled on the other side of the world and civilian casualties are measured as “collateral damage”, while military lives are protected.
This may sound cold-blooded and remove the normal reactions to conflict. But as the British general (Alan Rickman) responds to one character’s objections of such warfare, “don’t question a soldier’s ability to know the consequences of war”.
The political debate at Whitehall is just one of four venues where events occur in real time.
Initially, the mission is to capture a British woman, who has joined the Somalia-based Al-Shabaab jihadists.
But circumstances turn to a more deadly purpose when she visits a terrorist den in the slums of Nairobi, Kenya, where a suicide bomber mission is being planned.
A colonel (Helen Mirren) is running the mission from an intelligence base in Surrey and giving orders to the drone controllers based in Nevada.
Closest to the action is a local agent (Barkhad Abdi, the scary Somalian pirate in Captain Phillips), who is also the link to the innocent victims — notably a young bread seller (Aisha Takow) — if the drone’s missiles hit their target.
South African director Gavin Hood, who made the little-seen Iraqi war drama Rendition as well as the celebrated Tsotsi about gangs in Johannesburg, keeps up the tension throughout. He also plays the American drone commander.
Guy Hibbert’s screenplay plays up the duck shoving among those who will ultimately take responsibility as the political and legal factors clash with military imperatives.
These exchanges use black humour and embarrassing situations to highlight the bureaucratic nature of modern warfare as well as the psychological toll on those who carry out orders.
The end result is a superb thriller that draws no definitive conclusions while leaving little doubt that contemporary warfare has no simple solutions or ethical certainties.
Rating: Mature audiences (violence and offensive language); 102 minutes.