Silent Suffering: Ruminating on Andrew Niccol’s “Good Kill” (2014)

Warheads on foreheads.” A tagline common in US drone operations which is so plainly said in Andrew Niccol’s 2014 drama Good Kill that you almost miss it.

The film follows Major Thomas Egan (Ethan Hawke), a drone operator in Nevada who is clearly struggling with his profession and the changes to it in the 21st century. Yearning for the past where he was a pilot in an airplane in the sky, he loses the ability to relate to the so-called “War on Terror” as well as his family and friends. Losing his flying privileges drives him to alcoholism, isolation, reckless behavior and unhappiness. And while I found Good Kill as a whole somewhat slow, with some rather contrived and at times cheesy acting; the premise and the themes that emerged afterward I find to be highly important in relation to the global state of the world today.

In the drone operational rooms (i.e. shipping containers) on a Nevada base, we as viewers watch the shift work of pilots and the systematic nature of observation and surveillance. Niccol’s allows us a glimpse into the strange ability for soldiers at present to be at war for 8 hours a day, to then return safely to their homes for barbeques with neighbours, to help their children with long division, and to try and have sex with their partner. In times past this duality was perhaps wished for, but not the reality. Instead, soldiers were at war 24 hours a day around the clock with much time, but sometimes no time, to reflect on the haunting nature of war. *

What I found to be particularly striking about this film, however, was the complete lack of sound heard by those dropping bombs over the Middle East from thousands of kilometers away in the United States. The pilots in charge of the drones chatted with one another — frequently heatedly, but often playfully — yet there was no audio accompaniment to hear, and I would argue more fully feel, the impact and destruction of the strikes themselves. That is, sound is an incredible source and force of power, especially when in high volume: it is but one reason we go to see concerts live; it is another reason why we go to see films in theatres. Sound has the capacity to overtake our senses and make us feel things on a different scale.

Suffering in Good Kill is by no means invisible, but instead, silent. I wonder, then, if by stripping war in this manner — separating sense from sense; space from place; bomb from hand — we simply crumble our ethics? Due to compartmentalization, the gravity of waging war from a distance seems to diminish.

And while on one level I find this to be chilling, on another I recognize that the silence in this film clearly serves another purpose. From the perspective of the pilot the lack of sound likely contributes to his/her ability to show up to work. Imagine hearing the sounds of bombs dropping in close proximity most days (I suppose, imagine living in Yemen, Afghanistan, Waziristan, Syria, etc.). It would be startling and unnerving at first; but then, perhaps, you get accustomed to it and hear bombs merely as white noise…

Hawke’s character is certainly not a man of many words. He is stoic, but also psychologically traumatized by drone operations, as well as grieving the loss of flying real planes. The overarching narrative for Hawke presents itself as a sort of warped yearning for war “the way it was.” It comes across as a desire for nostalgic nationalism and controlled aggression; or to borrow from Mohsin Hamid, a desire for a war of “moral certainty.”

However, by having sound void, the focus of the film remains on the power of the image — film is after all, a visual medium. And yet if we are to talk accuracy, it has been documented that Reapers have much more grainy and imprecise image reception than what Niccol’s portrays; which practically, but still not ethically, explains to a degree the inaccurate strikes that occur all too frequently both on film and in real life. And while the drone footage Niccol’s presents may be too sharp to be called factual, what it does do is guide his viewers to a moral consideration of drone strikes, bringing his pilots and audiences closer to their “targets” and the myriad victims (also unemotionally called “collateral damage”).

Which brings me to arguably the best line of the film, spoken by Lt. Colonel Jack Johns (Bruce Greenwood): “Don’t ask me if this is a just war. It’s just war.”

But is it though?

*I should note that I of course appreciate that many soldiers around the world are currently at war in this capacity as well, and that this statement is not universal.

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