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.