‘Eye in the Sky’ plumbs the consequences of antiterrorism

—Photo Courtesy of Bleecker Street Media

In the fight against terrorism, who has the moral high ground? “Eye in the Sky,” playing this weekend at the Martha’s Vineyard Film Center and Edgartown Cinemas, poses that question. This gripping thriller demonstrates that movies don’t necessarily need car chases, guns, and bang-bangs every five minutes.

“Eye in the Sky” opens with several surprisingly mundane scenes. Helen Mirren, playing British Army Colonel Katherine Powell, wakes up next to a man we assume is her snoring husband. She talks to the family dog and goes into her home office to look at a bulletin board she uses for tracking the terrorists she’s been after for years. Covered with photos and other information, the board mimics the way C.I.A. operative Claire Danes follows her targets in “Homeland.”

In his final role, the late Alan Rickman plays Lieut. General Frank Benson, who shops for a doll his wife has commissioned him to buy, probably for a granddaughter. And in a neighborhood on the outskirts of Nairobi, Kenya, a father puts the finishing touches on a colorful Hula-Hoop for his daughter Alia (Aisha Takow). Outside the family shelter, this charming little girl plays with her new toy. Her job will be to sell her mother’s bread on a streetside table.

The military situation room where Col. Powell and her colleagues pursue the Somali Al-Shabab militants is dark, nondescript, and bustling with as much high-tech equipment as a sci-fi film. No need for exciting visuals here. Since the operatives include an American and two British citizens, Col. Powell must coordinate with the American military and her British superiors. The mission, code-named Egret, is to capture three terrorists with help from a fluttering avian drone. Jama Farah, an antiterrorist agent sent into Al-Shabab territory, is ordered to guide an even tinier drone — a beetle — inside the terrorists’ safe house. He is played by Barkhad Abdi, whose iconic face earned him an Oscar nomination for his role as a Somali villain in “Captain Phillips.” Farah’s task is to confirm the identity of the three central extremists. What he discovers next changes everything.

The miniature surveillance simulacrum reveals another room in the terrorists’ safe house where more saboteurs are preparing suicide vests. Soon the mission changes from “capture” to “kill.” International protocol requires that Col. Powell seek approval from her superiors, including Gen. Benson and government liaison Brian Woodale, played by Jeremy Northam. Proceeding like a high-level chess game, government and military officials debate the pros and cons of “capture” vs. “kill.” The decisionmaking bounces up and down the chain of command in scenes that reflect an almost comical form of bureaucratic absurdity. The stakes grow excruciatingly higher when little Alia sets up her bread station next to the Al-Shabab safe house. Ms. Mirren, in a forceful performance as Col. Powell, coldly asks a subordinate to calculate the collateral damage. Playing Las Vegas drone pilot Steve Watts, Aaron Paul enters the equation with reluctance.

The quandary facing these functionaries is whether the collateral damage to one little girl is greater than the prospect of Al-Shabab’s suicide mission killing 80 or more innocent Kenyans. To learn the answer, go see “Eye in the Sky.”

On Wednesday, April 13, the Film Center will hold a special screening of the 2013 Indian film “The Lunchbox,” in tribute to the late Jonathan Revere of West Tisbury. Indian refreshments and drinks by Uma Datta will be served in the lobby before the screening, which is co-sponsored by the West Tisbury library. Michael Haydn will play the piano.

For screening times and tickets for these two films, visit mvfilmsociety.com, entertainmentcinemas.com/locations/Edgartown, or go to MV Times event listings.