05/14/15 9:00am
05/14/2015 9:00 AM |

Good Kill

Good Kill
Directed by Andrew Niccol
Opens May 15

Andrew Niccol’s haunting Good Kill, set in 2010 during the steep escalation in US drone strikes, argues that remotely piloted vehicles make war too easy to wage. Ethan Hawke’s laconically smoldering Tom Egan, an Air Force major, has weathered six combat tours as an F-16 pilot and yearns to get back into the cockpit. “I miss the fear,” he says. Now he sits in a windowless metal container outside Las Vegas glued to a computer screen, wasting suspected jihadists from thousands of miles away with the squeeze of a joystick. He risks only carpal tunnel. The agonizing absence of valor in his toil taxes his marriage and sobriety. He seeks validation in self-destructive insubordination.

The film has the trappings of a conventional service drama. Egan and his wife—a suitably subdued January Jones—live with their children in modular base housing, defying regimented monotony with muscle cars, barbecues, and booze, maintaining Tom Wolfe’s vaunted “even strain.” But if astronauts transcended “spam in a can” ignominy and matched test pilots in daring patriotic glory, comfy drone operators will never have the right stuff. Fair enough, but the script is overly freighted. While the CIA may deserve its infamy, its rules of engagement probably aren’t as egregious as depicted. As Egan’s commanding officer, Bruce Greenwood, a fine character actor, is saddled with salty, cliché-ridden exposition meant to drive home drone operators’ indispensability for killing terrorists before they kill Americans. Actual operators are undoubtedly torn, but likely don’t debate ethics as deeply or piquantly as they do here. The women are essentially props. Still, Good Kill’s workmanlike quality affords it demonstrative credibility. From the American side, drone warfare itself is that way—safe, banal, quotidian, self-perpetuating. It is also insidiously perverse. In time the only thing Egan can do competently and calmly is the very task he hates most: executing drone strikes.

Civilian deaths (“collateral damage”) seem singularly callous when visited from thousands of miles away. They have hurt America’s image. Beyond that, drone strikes infuriate locals and effectively recruit terrorists. But they also arguably reduce civilian casualties overall and are cheaper than more gallant traditional warfare, and they have allowed the United States to back out of Afghanistan and tamp down terrorist threats in Pakistan, Iraq, Yemen, and Somalia. Egan himself sees them as ubiquitous and irrepressible, customizing his lawn so the operators he imagines monitoring his neighborhood can distinguish his house. These considerations justify Good Kill’s tone of weary resignation. Yet the film’s timing as protest is also propitious. On June 1, prompted by outrage among veterans and soldiers over the brief establishment in 2013 of a Distinguished Warfare Medal for drone operators that ranked above the Bronze Star with a “V” and the Purple Heart, the Pentagon is due to release a study on what military decorations drone pilots should be eligible to receive. Traditionalists like Maj. Egan hope it will restore valor’s pride of place in military culture. If so, the motivation to make war with mortal impunity may at least diminish.

04/27/15 2:03pm
04/27/2015 2:03 PM |

cartel land

Cartel Land
Directed by Matthew Heineman

How rare, and what a thrill, to see a documentary that could double in large part as its own narrative remake. Most docs are woefully uncinematic, strings of talking heads and archival footage that too often ends with links to “for further information” websites. Cartel Land, exhilaratingly, could not be translated into an op-ed piece.

As the title implies, the film considers modern narcotic trafficking, but while dealers and manufacturers do appear (masked, with one shocking exception), the primary focus is on the vigilante groups—on both sides of the border—fighting back. In Mexico, a small-town physician forms one such group, becoming a folk hero, while stateside, a veteran marshals a militia to monitor the border. Both sides raise important questions about how much citizens should step in if the official apparatus to provide security fails, while the leaders of both sides sometimes seem just as ominous as their opponents.

The War on Drugs is too big a topic for any film to go into fully, but some context would be helpful. Both sides seem to relish living out machismo fantasies, shooting into the air in celebration, so their necessity and effectiveness is uncertain, making it difficult to know how to evaluate their role in the issue. Nonetheless, director Matthew Heineman has made a tremendous work, getting so close to the action that you fear for the camera operators. The filmmaking itself is extraordinary, so one can forgive it if it gives less basic reportage. It’s difficult to imagine someone making a more vivid depiction of this issue.

A theatrical release is planned for this year.