It’s exceedingly appropriate that Good Kill is about drone warfare, because in many ways, it’s a drone in movie form: a soulless shell puppeted by people who are too far removed from their target, and whose delivery is often dangerously clumsy. Writer/director Andrew Niccol never met an idea he couldn’t overly literalize (“Guys what if TIME ACTUALLY WAS MONEY?!”), and his approach to this subject has all the grace of one of those notoriously problematic Hellfire missiles. Now, it’s not that the film is biased, preachy, or blunt that bothers me. I can greatly appreciate bias, preachiness, bluntness, and multiple permutations of them in combination. “Grace” is the operative term here (And yes, I believe you can be gracefully blunt. There’s an art to it, even (PaulVerhoevenPaulVerhoevenPaulVerheo-).
Ethan Hawke, operating at the height of his “furrowed brow, sad eyes” acting capabilities, plays Major Thomas Egan, a former Air Force pilot now stuck controlling drones, the very things that made his old job less relevant. He’s deeply conflicted about his new line of work, especially once his team begins working under the directives of the “Christians In Action.” Targeting people on uncomfortably vague suspicions, “double tapping” areas in order to kill whoever shows up at an explosion, and bombing countries the US is not at war with does not sit will with Egan at all. It just tears him up inside, man. And it shreds his relationship with his wife! God, this must be so terrible for him. Oh, and I suppose it sucks to be the Middle Easterners who get randomly blown up, too, but the movie doesn’t really care about them.
Now, Good Kill certainly pretends to care about the people on the other side of the drone control screen. The music swells dramatically and the characters wear expressions of utmost consternation whenever they have to take some new morally heinous action. But that only makes the citizens of Afghanistan or Yemen or what have you emotional pawns at the movie’s disposal. None of them are actually humanized. It is of course true that committing atrocity wreaks havoc on the soul, and it might even be considered daring to invite sympathy for one who commits, but that’s not the case at all when you’re dealing with one of “our” guys. We sympathize with them by default. We’re predisposed to understand their point of view, to make excuses for them, even. I’m done with that. I’m done with movies that are all about how doing bad things makes our soldiers feel bad.
It doesn’t help that, try as it might, the film can’t really veer around the fact that drone pilots have it much better than most other military personnel. They get to work from within the US, for crying out loud. Egan can commute from his Las Vegas home to his base like he’s some kind of white collar worker from hell. And then he goes home to January Jones but can’t appreciate her or their children because bleeehhhhh blowing people up gives him tummy hurts or whatever.
There’s been a mighty debate over the use of drones in recent years, and in case you’re not caught up, Good Kill will not only brief you on the basics of the practice, but will also helpfully summarize most of the basic arguments for you. On one side is Zoe Kravitz as The New Recruit Who’s Not Comfortable With What’s Going On, giving voice to all the sane, rational, and empathetic people in the world (although this doesn’t stop her from continuing to participate in the droning). On the other side is Jake Abel as The Jaded Veteran, representing the nation’s psychopaths and conservatives (but I repeat myself). Kravitz’s role is thankless, a mouthpiece for the filmmakers with a weirdass maybe-attraction subplot with Egan (“He… is also mildly frowny over what we’re doing. So hot”). Abel is kind of perversely fun. It helps that the guy has a quite untrustworthy visage — put him in a uniform and he absolutely looks like kind of person who joined the military to kill people.
Their conversations consist of back-and-forth talking points that could have been copy-pasted from any progressive/conservative news website. It’s going through the motions of tackling an issue in the least interesting manner possible. And this is what makes up the bulk of the story. That and unexciting, visually inert sequences in the drone “cockpit” and long stretches of Ethan Hawke trying to capital-A Act.
Bruce Greenwood is also in the film. His character’s name is Colonel Jack Johns and he swears a lot.
I want to make special note of the ending, which could have been resonant but cops out so badly that Kevin Smith shudders without knowing why every time someone watches it. There’s a recurring bit in the movie involving an Afghan man and woman whom the drone team keeps spotting in the course of their missions. On a seemingly regular basis, the man comes into the woman’s home and rapes her. The team has to watch this, and can’t do anything about it, because he’s not on their list. At the end, once Egan has decided enough is enough and that he’s through, his last act is to commandeer the drone console and blow that asshole the fuck up. He fires the missile and watches with smug satisfaction, counting down the seconds til “splash.”
…and then the woman comes into view, rapidly getting nearer the man. And there’s nothing Egan can do about it, because he already pulled the trigger. Splash.
Egan frantically scans the newly-made crater, hoping against hope that she somehow made it out okay. But he knows in his heart that he’s made a terrible mistake, that you can’t just turn this kind of unreliable methodology to a vigilante end without any problem. Ten thousand feet up is too far away from the action to be acting as judge, jury, and executioner. In one act, he’s demonstrated all the problems with drone warfa- oh no wait she’s fine. He did a Good Thing. He strolls off the base and hits the road to go win back his family. Happy ending!