I always view any new film Andrew Niccol directs with interest, since he was responsible for The Truman Show and Gattaca (as writer and writer/director respectively). Good Kill, his latest, is every bit as fascinating, absorbing and relevant as his best work.
Niccol regular Ethan Hawke is terrific in the lead as Tom Egan, a drone pilot for the US air force – or, as detractors of the drone programme refer to it, ”chair force”. Set in 2010, and supposedly based on real events, the film is a chilling depiction of the psychological toll drone warfare takes on those pulling the triggers.
The first act, when drone strikes are carried out under the control of the military, is alarming enough. But at least the officers giving the orders, including Egan’s conflicted superior (the excellent Bruce Greenwood), try their hardest to avoid civilian casualties and target known combatants only. However, once the CIA get involved in act two, things get considerably murkier, with moral lines crossed with disturbing regularity. With no assurance that targets are military, and with CIA analysts speaking coldly of acceptable collateral damage, Egan comes to think what he is involved with is no better than terrorism.
One thing this film does very well is depict military personnel as three dimensional characters who question the morality of their actions, in spite of the fact that they know they have to follow orders. As one character puts it, “We aren’t here to argue whether or not this is a just war. For us, it’s just war”. The viewer however, is invited to think long and hard about the decisions taken by the CIA, who, in a stroke of genius by Niccol, are depicted as the menacing red light on a phone as they speak down the line on a conference call. In addition, there is something intriguingly detached and decidedly surreal in the way Egan drives back to his suburban Las Vegas home where his wife and children wait, after his daily routine of dropping bombs in other countries thousands of miles away. As a former F-16 pilot, Egan finds himself longing to actually fly and be in genuine harm’s way again, complaining that he feels like a coward.
I should probably add the usual warnings for strong language, as well as sexual violence (in a couple of horrifying scenes where drone pilots have no choice but to observe a Taliban rapist without taking any action), but none of it is gratuitous or out of context. Indeed, the way Egan doesn’t swear, in contrast to his comrades and commanding officer, is a revealing element of his bottled up character that becomes important as the plot unfolds.
All things considered, Good Kill is a gripping, dramatic and thought provoking piece of work.