Review: Good Kill

“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).

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A Game of Drones – Trailer for Andrew Niccol’s Good Kill

Will Andrew Niccol’s latest capture the imagination and box-office in a similar fashion to American Sniper? On the surface, both films share a number of commonalities, not the least of which are soldiers having to kill their enemies from afar, with a certain unquestioning detachment. Niccol has made a career out of questioning the emotional and psychological significance of where we are and where we are going in terms of technology and its applications; from the sci-fi genetics drama Gattaca (also starring Ethan Hawke) to synthetic actors in S1Mone, to his screenplay for Peter Weir’s The Truman Show. Here he gets to play in the theater of the current Middle East and drone warfare. I think Good Kill will be better than American Sniper, but likely ignored by the public at large due to a falsely perceived copy-cat-itis.

In an air-conditioned shipping container somewhere in the Nevada desert, a war is being waged. Behind a door that reads “YOU ARE NOW LEAVING THE USA,” five flight-suited US Air Force officers operate drones that hover above “zones of interest” in the Middle East. At the press of a button, tiny targets viewed on computer screens vanish in plumes of smoke, as in a videogame. Egan (Ethan Hawke) used to live to fly. Now, he spends eight hours each day fighting the War on Terror by remote control and the remaining time at his suburban home, where he feuds with his wife (Mad Men’s January Jones), and numbs his boredom, rage, and guilt with alcohol. When Egan and his crew are told to start taking orders directly from the CIA — which selects its targets based not on personal profiles but patterns of activity — the notion of a “good” kill becomes even more maddeningly abstract, and Egan’s ability to comply with his superiors’ directives reaches its breaking point.

We’ve got the trailer below.