Writer/director Andrew Niccol’s biggest achievement in Good Kill is finding a way to make drone warfare genuinely thrilling. It’s too bad that the Gattaca and Lord of War director’s storytelling fails to reach the same heights.
Drone pilot Major Thomas Egan (Ethan Hawke) dreams of the days when he used to fly F-16s. When he confesses to his wife, Molly (January Jones), “I miss the fear,” he’s nostalgic for the rush of “real” combat and its built-in justification for violence. As he stares at his computer screen for hours, surveilling people he may or may not be ordered to kill, we begin to understand that what he really misses is the simplicity.
Like American Sniper and Zero Dark Thirty, Good Kill deals with American soldiers who are secure enough from danger to see their adversaries more as targets for assassination than imminent threats. Niccol shows the unexpected intimacy drone pilots develop with their targets despite their physical detachment. Sometimes, by the time he pulls the trigger, Egan knows his victims better than he knows his own family.
“You get to see your family” is the refrain of his fellow pilots—the thing that’s supposed to make the job and its attendant inferiority complex worth it. Egan, however, is no longer able to mentally and emotionally leave the battlefield, even though—or maybe because—he only experiences it on a screen. His marriage has all but collapsed under the strain.
Egan’s missions become truly harrowing once the CIA takes command of his team. Military rules of engagement are scrapped in favor of “patterns of behavior,” which means if someone in the wrong region of the wrong country acts suspiciously, according to the CIA’s secret criteria, it’s a matter of national security to kill them—the real justification for “signature strikes.” In one scene, Egan is ordered to bomb a farmer and his family simply for changing their location too frequently. It’s far from the worst thing he is made to do.
The suspense of these scenes, alternating between grainy, soundless images of villagers in Yemen and Pakistan and the anonymous interiors of Air Force trailers, is palpable and disturbing. It’s based on a strange kind of ethical fascination: Can violence this reprehensible be real, let alone inevitable? How much can Egan tolerate? And given the ripped-from-the-headlines nature of the film’s events, how much can we?
But the anticipation of Egan’s breaking point isn’t enough to carry an entire movie, and the script never finds a satisfying groove. The clunky dialogue wears Niccol’s research on its sleeve; the speeches of Egan’s commanding officer (Bruce Greenwood) and off-screen CIA liaison (Peter Coyote) sound like lightly dramatized documentary narration. The half of the film dealing with Egan’s family life is a series of obligatory clichés: fight about his emotional distance, check; disinterested sex, check; “I’m taking the kids to my sister’s,” check. Only Hawke’s sensitive performance keeps this rote material watchable. Niccol introduces a unique take on the war movie via suburban tragedy, but only the office scenes work.
The U.K.-based human rights organization Reprieve claims that “the U.S. has used drones to execute without trial some 4,700 people—that we know of.” One imagines that Niccol felt pressure to craft a clear message about the consequences of drone war, especially given the difficulty of producing the film without military support. On that level, he succeeded, but there are hints of a different film that would have more fully immersed us in the twilight world these pilots inhabit, at once virtual and all too real.