Disregard the arguments for and against drone warfare advanced in “Good Kill,” and the movie still makes a persuasive case that our blind infatuation with all-powerful technology is stripping us of our humanity.
Written and directed by Andrew Niccol (“Gattaca”), “Good Kill” is a blunt, outspoken critique of remote-control warfare, which is transforming the ugly reality of battlefield carnage into a video game whose casualties are pixels on a screen. The killing is real, and yet it isn’t. The title is the congratulatory jargon following an explosion that wipes out a terrorist cell or a Taliban hideout in Afghanistan, Pakistan or Yemen.
As you watch the smoke billow from a drone strike, it offers the cheap thrill felt by a child operating an Xbox, which the movie’s resident expert, Lt. Col. Johns (Bruce Greenwood) explains was a model for drones. “The brass don’t want to admit it,” he tells underlings, “but half of you were recruited in malls precisely because you’re a bunch of gamers.”
The blocky exposition, although highly informative, lends “Good Kill” a heavy-handed didacticism that undercuts the still shocking vision of the direction of modern warfare. Increasingly, it is a video game played by grown-ups who describe their dirty work in techno-speak that obscures what they are actually doing. Although the story is set in 2010, when the use of drones was dramatically expanded, “Good Kill” still feels like science fiction.
The film’s conscience, Maj. Tom Egan (Ethan Hawke), is an embittered Air Force pilot who after six tours of duty flying F-16s, is now a drone operator in a cramped trailer at a base outside Las Vegas. Acutely nostalgic for the flashy heroics of aviation, Tom pleads to return to the sky, but drones have superseded aerial combat.
Hawke’s anguished performance gives “Good Kill” a hot emotional center. Tom is painfully aware that innocents will die from missiles dispatched from a great distance. In battle, of course, there is always the likelihood of collateral damage, but there’s a difference between pulling a joystick while thousands of miles from a theater of war and risking your life in an aircraft. Tom observes in horror when civilians wander into a targeted site and are blown up.
Tom blunts his guilt and boredom with booze swigged straight from the bottle. And his marriage to Molly (January Jones), a former dancer with whom he has two children, is in the deep freeze.
Scenes of Tom and his fellow officers out on the town suggest that the drinking and lap-dancing pleasures in Las Vegas — what Johns calls I&I (for “intoxication and intercourse”) — are as mechanical as drone strikes. Viewed from above, the treeless suburban housing development in which Tom and other officers live is an ugly, sterile wasteland baking in the heat that resembles the arid Afghan villages that the drone strikes reduce to dust.
The movie makes you feel the confinement of the trailer in which Tom works, wearing headphones and sitting in front of a computer. He belongs to a group of technicians awaiting orders, including the most sympathetic fellow officer, Vera (Zoe Kravitz), the only woman in the unit. She and Tom conduct a discreet flirtation.
Early in the story, the operation is taken over by the CIA (facetiously nicknamed Christians in Action), whose rules of engagement are much looser than those of the military. Even the hard-nosed Johns is abashed by the wider license to kill.
It’s no longer necessary to identify a specific target as the enemy to be eliminated. All that’s required is for a “pattern of behavior” to be discerned. And Tom finds himself bombing a funeral for the victims of a strike. When rescue workers flock to the site of another explosion, he is instructed to kill them.
“Good Kill” at least makes a halfhearted attempt to justify drone warfare and its collateral damage. Most of those arguments are put in the mouth of Zimmer (Jake Abel), a gung-ho technician who reminds Tom that most of the casualties of the 9/11 terror attacks were American civilians. Zimmer’s motto: “Fly and fry.”
As Tom’s drinking worsens, and his inner turmoil reaches a boil, Hawke recalls Harrison Ford in his haunted, paranoid mode. At any second, you expect him to vomit up his bilious rage, but he resists.
“Good Kill” is really a contemporary horror movie about humans seduced and hypnotized by machines into surrendering their souls: “Invasion of the Body Snatchers” for techies.