Helen Mirren marches around a situation room in combat fatigues and bulky laced-up army boots. She is playing General Katherine Powell, the officer in charge of a covert operation in which names on the most wanted terrorist lists of the United Kingdom and the United States of America are assembled in a safe house in a congested part of Nairobi. It’s an opportunity Powell has awaited for years, and she’s willing to go to any lengths to complete her mission. The situation takes a sinister and more urgent turn when spy cameras capture images of two young men in the safe house preparing for a suicide bombing assignment.

Even as Powell is clear what needs to be done, she does not factor in the American drone pilot’s conscience awakening just as he has his finger poised on the trigger. Steve Watts (Aaron Paul) is overcome with emotion and guilt after he sees a young girl innocently selling bread in the street adjacent to the kill zone. He demands a recalculation of the collateral damage in this new situation.

Even as Powell is compelled to minimise unintended casualties, the decision makers in the UK administration keep passing the buck while the Americans are shown as cutthroat and clear in their objectives. Phone lines burn hot as the debate covers the ethics of taking the life of one innocent child in order to save scores of others who might be killed by suicide bombers, the legal ramifications of such actions and the balance between politics, diplomacy and military action.

Director Gavin Hood (Tsotsi, Rendition) and writer Guy Hibbert keep a neutral, bird’s eye view of the complexity of these arguments and the constantly seesawing moral compass. Eye in the Sky is a suspenseful and timely, if simplistic, thriller, exploring the new methods of war. Hood builds up the tension while injecting dashes of humour, particularly through the characters of the British politicians and Alan Rickman’s caustic Lieutenant General Frank Benson, who cannot remember which doll to buy his daughter but is completely clear on the rules of engagement.

Mirren and Rickman bring intelligence to their parts, while Barkhad Abdi channels sensitivity as the spy on the ground in Nairobi trying to save the girl. However, Paul overdoes the weeping and the guilt. Surely he knew what he had signed up for as a pilot of drones with missile launching capabilities.