How often can you say you’ve seen a movie that takes on a key moral and philosophical issue raised by the war on terror and does right by it? Maybe Zero Dark Thirty—although that initially garlanded and subsequently defamed picture, which does not kowtow to the screechy assurances of the self-righteous about the ineffectuality of waterboarding, never really knows what to make of itself and ends up oddly flat. A new British film called Eye in the Sky is anything but: This taut, tense, literate thriller is basically about a house in a Nairobi neighborhood—and what happens after the Kenyan intelligence service informs the British military that a U.K. national married to a Somali terrorist is headed there.

The U.K. national and her husband—a leader of al Shabaab, the al Qaeda affiliate in Somalia—are two of the West's key terrorism targets in East Africa. A military operation commences, led by Colonel Powell (Helen Mirren). She is at a base in Sussex with her team, which includes an officer in charge of risk assessment and a lawyer. Her commanding officer, Lieutenant General Benson (the late Alan Rickman), is in a conference room at Whitehall with the British attorney general, an undersecretary of foreign affairs, and a member of Parliament. Two Kenyan intelligence officers are on the ground tracking the couple.

Meanwhile, in Nevada, two young enlistees in the U.S. Air Force (Aaron Paul of Breaking Bad and Phoebe Fox) enter a stark and windowless hut in the desert whose interior is set up like a very roomy cockpit with captain and copilot chairs and computer screens. They are the controllers of a drone flying 9,500 miles away over East Africa. Their unmanned plane—the "eye in the sky"—will be used to surveil the house in Nairobi. The goal is to capture Mr. and Mrs. al Shabaab and bring them to Britain.

The operation goes perfectly, and the painstaking screenplay by Guy Hibbert cross-cuts between these locations and elements of the mission in an assured display of old-fashioned storytelling. Posing as a seller of buckets in the street across from the house, playing a video game on his phone, Kenyan spy Jama (Barkhad Abdi, a Somali from Minnesota who made such a spectacular impression as the lead pirate in Captain Phillips) controls a mini-drone that resembles a large fly and gets it inside the house. And what they all see from Jama's drone—the colonel in Sussex and the high-ranking team in London and the drone pilots in Nevada—are two men being fitted with suicide vests.

The big drone piloted by the Americans has two Hellfire missiles on it. Can the mission shift from seizure and capture to a direct strike on the house that will kill everyone inside? The British military personnel are of one mind; they must strike. The drone pilots in Nevada are suddenly faced with the possibility that they may have to fire missiles at a house and not just watch it.

And the politicians and bureaucrats panic. There is no question that the legal standard for action—imminent and unmistakable danger to civilians in Nairobi—has been met. But it is still a judgment call. Will the act of hitting a house in a heavily populated neighborhood have blowback consequences, since the world will have to take it on faith that the strike was necessary to prevent far greater loss of life? The foreign secretary is off in Singapore with a bout of food poisoning and says the prime minister must decide. The prime minister's aide says the foreign secretary must make the call. A staffer on the National Security Council is patched in and says the president will be disappointed and angry if Britain refuses to act.

Meanwhile, a little Kenyan girl we've been watching since the movie began leaves her house nearby and wanders into the potential blast zone.

From what I've read, it was Hibbert's goal to make a standard-issue denunciation of the excesses of the West in fighting the war on terror. But screenwriters are counseled to structure a plot that continually raises the stakes, and Hibbert clearly came to recognize that his story would have greater power and more tension if he fleshed out all the possible logistical and moral permutations of a drone strike—and forced the movie's characters to deal with these questions without the luxury of time to debate or pass the buck.

In "The Case for Drones," his definitive 2013 article in Commentary, Kenneth Anderson wrote that "if you believe the use of force in these circumstances is lawful and ethical, then all things being equal as an ethical matter, the method of force used should be the one that spares the most civilians while achieving its lawful aims." Hibbert and his director, Gavin Hood, probably do not believe this about drones. But they've made a movie that pays respect to those who do, and in that regard alone, Eye in the Sky has to be considered a singular achievement.

John Podhoretz, editor of Commentary, is The Weekly Standard's movie critic.