This is the best film about the war on terror since Zero Dark Thirty, but it’s nothing like that Kathryn Bigelow movie. It’s more reminiscent of the fourth season of Homeland on Showtime. The first episode of that season was titled “The Drone Queen,” and in that episode as well as in several episodes that followed, the drama was built around a female character having to decide whether to use the armed but unmanned aircraft not only to spy but also to kill people and destroy things from a distance. She has to weigh the collateral damage, including innocent children. This film takes that same concept and makes it into even more of a potboiler, but this movie isn’t of dubious merit or quality as traditional potboilers. This film is one of the best of the year so far.
If one hasn’t seen Homeland and its fourth season, then the next, best comparison is to Crimson Tide (1995). It’s not as much of a test-of-wills or a measure-of-machismo as that Tony Scott film. That 1995 hit put Denzel Washington and Gene Hackman at loggerheads, and made it a kind of tug-of-war. This movie doesn’t involve nuclear annihilation, but it does have suicide bombing on a huge scale and hundreds of lives at stake. Similarly, it comes down to people with technology at hand going back-and-forth over whether to fire weapons or not.
Even though his role isn’t as prominent, and even though he doesn’t get as much screen time, as much dialogue or as much physical action, the Denzel Washington of this movie is Emmy-winner Aaron Paul (Breaking Bad) who co-stars as Lt. Steve Watts, an officer at Creech AFB, Nevada. Consequently, the Gene Hackman of this movie is Oscar-winner Helen Mirren (The Queen) who stars as Colonel Katherine Powell who works out of a military facility in London.
Like Washington, Paul’s character is against firing the weapons, and, like Hackman, Mirren’s character wants to pull the trigger. The issue at hand in Crimson Tide is a miscommunication, especially that with the powers-that-be, that leads to a difference of opinion about protocol. This movie’s issue is instead clear communication with the powers-that-be that still leads to a difference of opinion about protocol, which brings in the fact that the war on terror is not just about human lives but it’s about optics and perception.
This movie doesn’t go over-the-top in its dramatics and aggression. What it does take up is an air of sentimentality and even a sense of humor. When it comes to the war on terror, there isn’t a lot to joke about or a lot of comedy to be found. Yet, writer Guy Hibbert finds it. How he does so is in the bureaucracy, and the tendency for politicians or people in government to pass the buck or shirk responsibility.
In the center of that comedy is Alan Rickman in his last on-screen, acting performance before his death this January. Rickman is great. He’s funny, but he can fluidly turn and give such gravitas and be gravely serious.
Each of the supporting cast is on point as well, including Barkhad Abdi (pictured below in middle) who was Oscar-nominated for his very first role in Captain Phillips (2013). He went from playing a desperate villain who becomes cornered in that movie to playing a desperate hero here who also becomes cornered. He basically is a spy who gets a couple of cool toys that would make Q from James Bond envious.
Director Gavin Hood (Tsotsi and X-Men Origins: Wolverine) makes this film what American Sniper should have been. The struggle of Aaron Paul’s Steve Watts was everything that Bradley Cooper’s Chris Kyle should have been. Instead of a rifle, which Chris Kyle had, Steve Watts has the controls to a drone. Cooper focused on the physicality of his character, becoming a beefcake, whereas Aaron Paul focuses on the emotionalism, which he nails, and as such he deserves an Oscar nomination too. There’s a great amount of tension and anxiety here. This movie is a true thriller.
Five Stars out of Five.
Rated R for some violent images and language.
Running Time: 1 hr. and 42 mins.
Last day in Dover’s Carmike Cinemas.
Playing in Rehoboth Beach and select cities.