[This is a re-post of my review from the 2014 Toronto International Film Festival. Good Kill opens today in limited release.]
Writer-director Andrew Niccol has some thoughts about drone warfare, and he wants to share them with you. His new film, Good Kill, is one of the first mainstream fiction films to deal directly with the subject as opposed to some wishy-washy, pretentious subtext in a Hollywood picture (I’m looking at you, RoboCop remake). While Niccol once again shows himself to be a great “idea man”, he can’t manage to create a story even half as interesting as his subject.
Thomas Egan (Ethan Hawke) is an Air Force pilot who once flew jets, but now sits in a trailer flying drones. After a day’s work, he leaves the box, walks into the Nevada sun, and drives home to his family in Las Vegas. He longs to get back into a real cockpit, but he’s told by his commanding officer (Bruce Greenwood) that it’s a long shot because drone warfare is here to stay. Already despondent due to his current assignment, Egan’s stress becomes exacerbated when the CIA steps in and demands harsh execution for questionable missions. As the daily moral cost weighs on Egan, it begins to eat at his conscience and wear away at his marriage.
The importance of Egan’s personal life is a distant second to Niccol’s enthusiasm for having his characters pontificate about the nature of drone warfare. Early in the film, Greenwood’s character rattles off a speech to the new recruits that sounds like it was ripped from the pages of a New York Times op-ed piece. He enunciates the background of the drone program, and how it was partially based on video games, but also attempts to stress there’s a real cost of human life. Niccol isn’t ambivalent about drone warfare, and he tries to convey both its pros and cons. It’s a complicated subject where the moral is weighed against the practical at least until the CIA steps in.
Once “Langley” (voiced by Peter Coyote) dictates missions over speakerphone, the drone program becomes unambiguously wrong. Targets are chosen based on “patterns of behavior” rather than certainty, and it’s ironic that just as the drone victims never see their attacker coming, Egan’s team never meets their new boss. It’s easy to become disconnected from the loss of human life when the target is 7,000 miles away, but Egan and his co-pilot, Suarez (Zoe Kravitz), feel deep regret for their actions.
It’s interesting to see characters who are so powerful and yet powerless. The drone program has basically provided the U.S. military with the wrath of God. There is no risk to a drone, and any target can be wiped out any time. While I believe in Michael Corleone’s statement that “if history has taught us anything, it is that you can kill anyone,” in the past you at least had to work for it. The only personal repercussion of a drone strike is a moral one, and while Niccol is interested in seeing how that affects a pilot, he never depicts it in an effective way.
Perhaps because he feels the need to make a direct statement, Niccol doesn’t want to do anything to distract from his point, and so he keeps the story as simple as possible. Egan deals with his guilt with heavy drinking and pushing away his wife (January Jones), and that’s how many soldiers deal with PTSD. This disorder may be unusual considering Egan’s position of safety, but it’s not surprising that he feels some guilt for being able to kill others without risking his life.
Niccol also needs to convey this guilt, but he does so in the most unimaginative way possible because Good Kill isn’t a character piece. It’s a way to get a wider audience to learn and think about drone warfare, but do so within the framework of a movie starring Ethan Hawke and January Jones, which will probably get more viewers than a documentary. The movie falls apart at the end as Niccol is forced to complete Egan’s narrative arc, but the filmmaker doesn’t want people to leave the theater talking about a character. He wants them to leave discussing the merits of drone warfare. It’s an issue worth discussing, but Good Kill isn’t worthy of the issue.