“Keep compartmentalizing” is a piece of advice from a commanding officer to his ace pilot. This is darkly humourous, intelligent screenwriting because these drone-piloting soldiers spend 12 hours a day literally inside a box, albeit an air-conditioned one filled to the brim with technology, with fresh coffee available if needs be.
A day of drone warfare fought, the service men and women leave the base and go home to BBQ with their family and drink beer in the nearby Las Vegas suburb, a pebble-lawned stretch of cookie cutter banality not far away from the dazzling gratuitousness of The Strip. Things go from grim but necessary to deeply disturbing slowly but inevitably, and often didactically, in Good Kill.
The film focuses on Major Tom Egan (Ethan Hawke), a former F-16 pilot and a veteran of many tours. He is now ‘grounded’ in the tiny box on wheels enacting a play-station war; one of low risk of physical harm (barring carpal tunnel syndrome) on which he compensates by making the damage 100% psychological. Egan’s icy disposition and years of experience make him one of the current top performers in piloting drones.
Hawke’s performance is miles apart from his life-long work with Richard Linklater, not to mention as different as possible from the testosterone meathead cinema-depictions of fighter pilots in thrill oriented blockbusters like Top Gun and its numerous copy cats. Egan ignores the gung-ho nature of the two tech support co-workers, the young guys that keep the communications to the remotely piloted aircraft humming along. Egan is quietly respectful of the competence of his equally young female co-pilot (Zoë Kravitz) while carrying out any order from his commanding officer (Bruce Greenwood, who gets all the good lines and let’s face it, is a national goddamn treasure).
The burden of ‘compartmentalization’ between his home-life and his job is exacting a huge toll. His wife (January Jones) feels far more estranged from him than even when he was half a world flying fighter-jets at speed. Her unmet needs grind up with his unwillingness to open up about the grim realities of daily ‘good kills’ of foreign combatants. Even as Egan helps his kids with their math homework and dutifully grills meat in the backyard on the weekends, he looks dead on the outside, but simultaneously ready to crack.
He halfheartedly chases a chance to get back in his former ‘kite’ but that ship has long sailed, and it feels more obligatory in the asking for it, a last string of delusional hope. Egan’s condition is not so much Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, than In-Situ Traumatic Stress Disorder, and the film mines much of its drama from this new way of combat as a office job. His younger colleagues tell him he is living the dream. Niccol is intent on communicating the nightmare. The film is less interested in delving into whether or not this war is effective, but looks more at the consequence on the soul on both ends of the targeting camera.
Francois Truffaut famously said that it is impossible to make an anti-war film, because films tend to make war look exciting. Up until Andrew Niccol’s look at combat by drone warfare, Good Kill, that statement might have been true. It is a cliché to say that 21st century warfare is a new paradigm, and despite the recent cinema of Katherine Bigelow and Clint Eastwood, trying to reflect this, it still features boots-on-the-ground.
Aspects of soldiers in morally compromising conditions still have a certain thrill of procedural action cinema. Morality in war is, of course, not a new frontier; in fact it is one of the oldest. The term “total war” was applied by the Romans against Carthage where civilian casualties were officially part of the process due to their tough resistance. And the Atomic age certainly upped the stakes of morality in terms of how war was fought. The amplification of asymmetry in warfare started in the 20th century, but here, now, in Afghanistan, Syria, Pakistan or Yemen, a sunny day is a thing to be feared because the drones are not visible from the ground.
There is only the awareness that they are in use is all pervasive when the clouds are not blocking the view from 10000 feet. Much of Good Kill is told from the point of view, but it plays out in an icy emotional vacuum, a deeply disturbing one that distances itself from the more visceral scope-views of American Sniper or the quest for Osama bin Laden in Zero Dark Thirty, and in-the-moment hyper-focus of The Hurt Locker.
Like many of his previous films, Niccol is very much concerned with how technology disrupts society, and the unintended consequences. Gattaca’s genetically superior astronauts and NASA surrendering human drive to engineered entitlement. In Time considered continued life as an economic model with time the new currency and asked (between action set pieces) what would the 1% look like and what would the burst of an economic bubble look like? Synthesbians (S1mOne), godlike reality shows and their unwilling participants used for the entertainment of a nation (The Truman Show, which Niccol wrote). Those films were set in the future. Drone warfare is now, and all the more surreal that it is not in the realm of science fiction.
Here, war is fought like a boring office job, only with death and collateral damage. Clockwatching, bland cafeteria food and dealing out death on a schedule with data mining behaviour algorithms? As if it were not already, war is now truly hell. Nowhere is this more true than when the CIA gets involved in the mission, running things by conference call, and selecting targets by the slipperiest of slopes.
Mission creep is both a reality, and a disembodied voice at the other end of a Polycom (Peter Coyote, oily and coolly authoritarian) casually issuing escalating kill orders of anonymous men and those who surround them. There is a recurring surveillance mission of a bad man who routinely, daily, rapes a woman, rendered to the god’s eye, but since he is the wrong bad man (for the moment) the pilots just have to watch and deal with it. A shot later in the film ominously frames the school attended by Egan’s son in a similar from above viewpoint. The comparison is not subtle, but it is sobering.
If Good Kill is neither exciting in its repetitive target destruction, nor overly fiery in its drama, it is starkly original in painting a picture of personal psychosis via remote video surveillance and the men who have their fingers on the trigger. The film is a slow-burn horror movie with only coping-mechanism of humour somewhere between Kubrickian and Orwellian. Because we’re not at the end of this, we’re at the beginning, where those playing the game of drones actually remember the sense of danger and consequence of flying in a manned aircraft plane in the thick of it. The next generation of drone pilots aren’t soldiers, the will be gamers. In an endless war, there is no shortage of opportunities for sequels.