“Good Kill” is the first major film that grapples with the ethics of the USA’s new weapon of choice—the armed, unmanned drone—but it certainly won’t be the last, and you have to hope that future ones will improve on its shallow dramatics, insistent point-making and simplistic ending. Still, one has to give it credit for taking on a serious subject, even if it fumbles the attempt.
What Andrew Niccol’s film does have going for it is its star. Ethan Hawke, who’s been doing some of the best work of his career lately (at least if you set aside “The Purge” and “Getaway”) is excellent as Major Thomas Egan, a pilot who flew combat missions in the Middle East but is now an ace drone controller in Nevada, manipulating the machines from an air-conditioned metal booth on an Air Force base outside Las Vegas and raining down missiles with uncanny precision on targets deemed dangerous to US interests while trying to avoid collateral damage, especially injury to innocent civilians. It’s a stressful job that’s created friction with his wife Molly (January Jones), who finds her husband becoming more and more distant from her and their two kids—especially since Egan feels that the position has inured him to the visceral experience of combat; he wants actually to be in the cockpit again, something neither his wife nor his team—Zimmer (Jake Abel), Carlos (Ryan Montano) and Christie (Dylan Kenin) understand. Only his commander, Lt. Col. Jack Johns (Bruce Greenwood) does, but he also appreciates the coolness and skill with which Egan operates in his current post and knows that manned flight is becoming increasingly obsolete as America’s airborne method of choice.
Egan’s situation grows more troubled as a result of two factors. One is the arrival of a new “copilot,” Vera Suarez (Zoe Kravitz), who volunteered for the posting but from the start is uneasy about the tactics the drone program employs, especially in terms of its unintended consequences. Her objections grow more and more vocal because of a second change: the team’s duties are put under the direction of the CIA, which will choose their targets and advise them when and where to release their missiles. Neither Egan nor Johns is happy about having their judgment supplanted by a voice from Langley, whose disembodied quality just accentuates the distancing effect of their mission. (For viewers, the fact that the voiceover is by Peter Coyote, whose tones they’ll certainly recall from his work as the government man in “E.T.,” makes the point all the more telling.) But Johns emphasizes that orders are orders, and he sets aside the doubts he harbors about the agency’s directives. In short, his speeches to the team will serve as the justification for the drone program, set against Suarez’s increasingly strident condemnations of it.
It’s that back-and-forth between the two that brings both the morality and the effectiveness of the drone program into focus for viewers. The points each raises are certainly not new, and the way Niccol has them present their views has a didactic quality reminiscent of activist films of the 1950s; eventually however well delivered—and Greenwood is especially good at adding a note of weary resignation to his speeches—their contributions come to seem like staged episodes in a debate, with the script checking off the issues they’re raising as though proceeding through a pre-ordained list.
What gives the film dramatic heft isn’t so much what they say, as the way that Egan responds to the pressures the missions put on him. He becomes distracted and increasingly solitary at home; he drinks more and more, even at one point being stopped for driving under the influence; he suspects Molly of infidelity, reacting violently to the possibility; and he’s attracted not only to Suarez’s ideas but also to the woman herself. Many of these plot elements have a melodramatic cast, but despite that Hawke captures the character’s transformation with an admirable degree of restraint and quiet depth. Unfortunately, the resolution of the picture—in which Egan takes matters back into his own hands, despite the professional consequences, and walks out of his cubicle into the sunlight, apparently renewed—replaces the more nuanced treatment of the ethical quandary Egan has faced up to that point with a ham-fisted note of personal redemption that makes it seem as though the questions the film has raised are susceptible to easy solutions.
Typical of Niccol’s films, “Good Kill”—the phrase Egan repeats every time a missile hits its target, and obviously intended as ironic—is a visually elegant piece of work, which manages to invest the computer-screen shots of distant war zones with genuine suspense (a difficult feat to pull off, as many other pictures have proven) while giving the outdoor Nevada scenes a sense of vastness and the sequences within the drone shed a pervasively claustrophobic feel, a quality accentuated in Guy Barnes’ expert production design. Especially notable is the decision by the director and cinematographer Amir Nokri to shoot many of the establishing scenes of the Egan home, with its carefully groomed plot of green lawn amid the cement, from high in the sky—an obvious point of comparison to the computer screens showing the team’s drably brown targets and reflection of Suarez’s comment that someday America’s enemies will have drones, too. Zach Staenberg’s editing keeps the longueurs to a minimum—not an easy task in a film of this kind.
Niccol’s film deserves recognition for inviting discussion about a controversial aspect of US policy in the war on terror—though from a dramatic standpoint, in spite of Hawke’s excellence it leaves a good deal to be desired.