Many years from now, when they are making the list of the great War on Terror thrillers, they will of course start with Zero Dark Thirty, and until recently, that's where they could have ended, too. Now we have a second, sneaking into the world with virtually no fanfare other than a 2015 Toronto International Film Festival debut that nobody talked about since it wasn't getting an Oscar-qualifying run: Eye in the Sky, a lithe, stomach-churning British thriller directed by South African-born Gavin Hood.

I've personally had little enthusiasm for Hood in the past: his 2005 international breakthrough, Tsotsi, South Africa's first (and only) winner of the the Foreign Language Film Oscar feels half-formed, and nobody who helmed the repellent X-Men Origins: Wolverine gets any benefit of the doubt for making any kind of movie, but least of all one that needs a sustained sense of tension. Well, I would like to offer my apologies to Mr. Hood, who I am certain would not care in the tiniest degree what I think about anything: his direction of Eye in the Sky's unfairly impressive ensemble cast, and his nerve-scraping ruthlessness in charging through Guy Hibbert's procedural screenplay like a rhinoceros in heat make for some indisputably great thriller filmmaking. As it turns out, Eye in the Sky is a wickedly intelligent film and outraged political statement, but part of what allows it to be those things is that it's first and foremost a dementedly exciting film to watch: even knowing that this is a movie and was likely to end a very specific way, given the things we're forced to notice early on, I spent most of the film's 102 minutes gripping my armrests like a life preserver.

Playing like the evil mirror universe version of The West Wing, Eye in the Sky is a study of how military/political decisions get made in something that's so very close to real-time that I think we should count it. The inciting scenario: the British government has borrowed a U.S. drone team for the day, tracking a pair of British civilians in Kenya who've joined up with the Islamic militant group Al-Shabaab. Under command of Col Katherine Powell (Helen Mirren), the mission is to capture these individuals, but that quickly goes awry when the drone team - pilot 2nd Lt. Steve Watts (Aaron Paul) and targeting A1C Carrie Gershon (Phoebe Fox) - find it impossible to get an angle on the face of a woman that will confirm she's the intended target. This requires a much trickier infiltration mounted from the ground, with Somali-born spy Jama Farah (Barkhad Abdi) flying a tiny beetle-shaped camera into the safe house where the targets have stashed themselves, discovering inadvertently that they're preparing to strap bomb vests to one American and one British citizen who've also joined up with Al-Shabaab. The mission now becomes a targeted assassination, which causes its own set of problems in confirm that the U.S. won't kick up a fuss over the killing of one of its own, dragging in both Powell's superior, Lt-Gen Frank Benson (the late Alan Rickman, in a showstopper role that painfully reminds us what we've lost with his passing), as well as a gaggle of military and political advisors to the Prime Minister. By the time that this works itself out, an even bigger problem has arisen: preteen Alia Mo'Allim (Aisha Takow), whom Watts and Gershon had earlier watched as she played with a hula-hoop in her backyard, is now selling loaves of bread in the market on the other side of the wall of the safe house. She is very much in the kill zone, and Watts finds himself unable to pull the trigger when the time comes. And before you can say "the buck stops everywhere else", just about every British or American character we've seen so far gets caught up in a game of trying to make sure that somebody else has to make the decision to probably execute an innocent little girl.

That's a hell of a lot of moving parts: I promise it's worth it. Eye in the Sky isn't really concerned with the morality of the War on Terror and its attendant collateral damage; the film seems to take it for granted that we'll be disgusted by any course of action resultign in Alia's death (and just to make sure, there's a final scene, under the credits, that hammers home her guileless childlike charm). While it includes several sequences in which Powell and Benson justify their actions in impeccably logical arguments - the latter getting a "hell yeah!" moment on top of it, in his kiss-off to bureaucrat Angela Northman (Monica Dolan), who'll have to deal with the PR fallout if Alia dies, and also seems to be genuinely morally outraged on the girl's behalf - it would be a real stretch to argue that the film is hosting a serious debate about the ethics of drone warfare. Instead, it's a study of the political process by which several people in a decision-making chain, from the most ruthlessly militaristic (Powell) to the most beatifically pacifist (Gershon), work to make sure that they are personally insulated from the ramifications of their decisions. While the stakes in the film are the life and death of a child who is one of the few characters to get any personalising details in the script, the tension is drawn from much more ludicrously quotidian events: will they be able to get hold of the Foreign Secretary (Iain Glen), currently on the toilet with a bad case of food poisoning? Can Powell bully a subordinate into fudging a collateral damage estimate?

More than it's ever about drone strikes, Eye in the Sky is about the impersonal bureaucracy of political decision-making in the Information Age, something like a joke-free incarnation of In the Loop. Everything that happens is largely mechanical, and it happens to largely mechanical people: the list of details we learn about any of the characters can be summed up on the fingers of one hand - Powell has a husband who snores, Alia's father (Armaan Haggio) is reasonably liberal but hides it when the religious fascists with guns come around, Benson is clueless when it comes to buying toys for, presumably, his granddaughter. Otherwise, almost everybody is defined strictly in terms of where the fall in the line of command, who they answer to, and who they can boss around. This doesn't mean that the characters don't feel living and fleshed-out, for thanks to a dynamite cast, they all do: Mirren's battle-hardened Powell is a particularly impressive turn, never deviating from a very tiny range of feelings, but within that span, making it very clear that her character is driven neither by blind militarism nor a hatred of brown people in Africa, but a very methodically worked-out conviction that yes, this is the right and good ethical decision (which makes her much more terrifying, really).

Rather, the general anonymity of the cast is a function of the story the film tells about how that anonymity is the central element of drone warfare. Near the end, a largely neutral shot blandly showcases that the tiny computerised box where Watts and Gershon sweated out the whole movie is one of several identical cockpits, a sobering, unspoken reminder that the situation we've just seen playing out can go own many times every day, always with the same human cogs making the same choices free of any personal consequences. The film doesn't need to grandstand against drones; by showcasing in minute, nerve-wracking detail how the process of using them works, it manages to show the inherently inhuman nature of that process without ever once having to make a big deal about it; without, in fact, ever having to back away from how beautifully tense and enthralling the movie wrapped around this message has been. It's the best kind of political thriller, never easing up on the politics or the thrills, and emerging as 2016's first wholly unexpected piece of entertaining brain food.