By general consensus, Barack Obama has authorised about 10 times as many drone attacks as his predecessor; the death toll from drone strikes is now higher than that of 9/11 and many of the dead have been innocent civilians, including women and children.

This gripping thriller turns that inconvenient truth into a specific story that unfolds in real time, and confronts us with the ethical implications of one aspect of the so-called war on terror.

The fictional drone strike concerned is actually a British one, under the direction of Colonel Katherine Powell (Mirren, in a role originally written for a man). The initial plan was to capture a radicalised young Englishwoman from a terrorist hideout in Nairobi. But when close-up surveillance (by a device that doesn't exist yet, but soon will) reveals the occupants of the house are preparing for an imminent attack, the strike is on.

And off. And on. The film is essentially a series of discussions about whether to proceed, illustrated with aerial footage of the target zone, at the centre of which a young girl is selling loaves of the bread her mother has freshly baked.

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She's in the crosshairs of US Air Force lieutenant Steve Watts (Breaking Bad's Paul), the Earthbound drone pilot, his finger on the button of a joystick in a shed in the Nevada desert and his heart in his mouth. Meanwhile, sitting at a a table in a Whitehall office, politicians and civil servants seek to avoid making a decision.

Shooting in his homeland, South African director Hood, who made the Oscar-winning townships gangster drama Tsotsi in 2006, has come up with a sleek, riveting and masterfully controlled drama. Nothing feels contrived or overdone - even the absurdist moments (echoes of Dr. Strangelove) in the Whitehall office, where everything gets referred up, are dialled back so the impulse to laugh curdles in our mouths.

Sharp editing and slick camerawork emphasise the disjuncture between the brightly sunlit killing field and the dark office where political caution wrestles military urgency. The latter is embodied by a British officer, played by Rickman, whose beautifully nuanced performance is rich in restrained sourness, and there's an extra kick in knowing that this was his last gig. But there were already kicks enough. It may be a one-trick pony, this picture, but it's a hell of a trick.

Movie: Eye in the Sky
Cast: Helen Mirren, Aaron Paul, Alan Rickman, Barkhad Abdi, Iain Glen, Jeremy Northam, Kim Engelbrecht, Phoebe Fox
Director: Gavin Hood
Running time: 102 mins
Rating: M (violence, offensive language).
Verdict: Real-time, real-world nerve-shredder.