In an underground bunker in England, Colonel Katherine Powell (Helen Mirren) is at the head of an operation to capture an English woman who has joined militant Islamist group al Shabab. However, the stakes change when high-tech surveillance shows that the group, meeting in a house in Nairobi, is actually getting ready for a suicide bomb attack.
Powell decides that the best option is to send a US military drone to blow up the house and kill those inside before they can carry out the attack.
She gives the order to drone pilot Steve Watts (Aaron Paul) in Las Vegas, but just as he’s about to strike, a young Kenyan girl stops outside the house to sell bread. Feeling morally conflicted, he asks for new clearance based on the change in predicted “collateral damage”. This initiates the moral dilemma that is the hub of the film’s spinning roulette wheel: is it justifiable to kill an innocent child in order to save the lives of hundreds of others?
In a Kafka-esque farce where no-one wants to take responsibility, the film’s roulette ball bounces between the different characters, who are challenged with reaching a decision before the suicide bombers leave the scene.
Although there are an admirably large number of female characters in what is traditionally a male-dominated genre, they aren’t presented in a positive light.
Of the two soldiers pushing for the strike, Colonel Powell appears cold and manipulative, while Lieutenant General Frank Benson (Alan Rickman) seems more worldly-wise and principled. Of the two soldiers on the ground in Nairobi, the woman is more or less inconsequential while the man is decisive, humane and heroic; the same applies to the two drone pilots.
Of the three dithering politicians in the room with Benson, the female politician is the least likeable. She is portrayed as high-handed and ill-informed, and is roundly put in her place by Benson’s drum-roll departing line: “Never tell a soldier he doesn’t know the cost of war.”
Director Gavin Hood (Ender’s Game; X-Men Origins) and writer Guy Hibbert have created an entertaining, suspense-laden film that makes some interesting points about drone warfare, but unfortunately doesn’t go far enough in addressing the sexism prevalent in mainstream cinema.