In the hot dusty impoverished section of Nairobi controlled by Al-Shabaab militia, three of the most wanted terrorists are secretly meeting. A combined British-American task force has them targeted from above.
The operation is commanded by British Colonel Katherine Powell (Helen Mirren). Perhaps because she has been tracking these terrorists for six years, she is strongly no nonsense. They are now in her sights. She is determined to take action. Mirren's mission was originally tasked to capture the most wanted.
But intelligence skillfully and dangerously secured by local operative Jama Farah (Barkhad Abdi; nominated for Best Supporting Actor, Academy Award and Golden Globe for his role in Mr. Phillips) shows the Al-Shabaab militants in the process of arming and dispatching suicide bombers. Capturing them is no longer an option. "I want to send a Hellfire Missile through the roof of that building," says Colonel Powell.
Her boss, Lt. General Frank Benson (the late Alan Rickman) is no less firm of purpose. When lectured on the dangers of bombing, Benson angrily retorts, "Never tell a soldier he does not know the costs of war!" In many ways, the costs of war is what this death through the skies drone team deals with.
But the British politicians (Monica Dolan, Jeremy Northam and Richard McCabe) who must authorize the strike hesitate. The mission was originally to capture. Now they would be executing terrorists that include two British and one American citizen. Though they may have committed heinous crimes, the political calculus weighs heavily.
Decisions are referred up to those with more clout but less immediate vision, higher profile and further from ground zero. On the American side, U.S. State Department officials (Michael O'Keefe and Laila Robins in a brief stunning cameo) have no such qualms!
Into this minefield wanders an innocent, Kenyan child selling bread in front of the targeted building. American drone operators Steve Watts (Aaron Paul) and Carrie Gershon (Phoebe Fox) watch in horror as the clock ticks toward collateral damage that they are ordered to execute.
Director Gavin Hood has skillfully ratcheted up the dramatic tension as a nice counter point to the moral and political debates. Views are aired; sides are not taken. This is not agitprop. Writer Guy Hibbert, who worked with Ms. Mirren in the stellar BBC series Prime Suspect, provides his disputants with crisp dialogue, framing their arguments without patronizing their positions.
The contrast between the well-appointed board rooms and the dusty slums controlled by Al-Shabaab reminds us that when geopolitical imbalance reaches a certain level, life and death decisions can be made as easily in one venue as another.