Directed by: Andrew Niccol.
Written by: Andrew Niccol.
Starring: Ethan Hawke (Major Thomas Egan), Bruce Greenwood (Lt. Colonel Jack Johns), January Jones (Molly Egan), Zoë Kravitz (Airman Vera Suarez), Jake Abel (M.I.C. Joseph Zimmer), Dylan Kenin (Capt. Ed Christie), Peter Coyote (Langley).
There is a good movie to be made about drone strikes as currently practiced by the United States government. About the morality of conducting these operations, how they calculate what “collateral damage” is acceptable, about the effect it has on those tasked with carrying out those missions, and about whether the fact that drone strikes make it safer and easier (for the American military anyway) means that they go overboard with using it. Andrew Niccol’s Good Kill is not that movie. As a character study of one of the drone pilots, it doesn’t really work as the character is so closed off emotionally, and so monotonous in his actions, and the plot both when he’s flying the drones, and his home life so predictable, that much of the movie is dull. In the final act – when Niccol tries to up the drama a little bit, it comes across as false – as if Niccol didn’t know how to end the movie, so he ramped everything up, which doesn’t really work with what came before. If there’s value in the movie – and there is at least a little – it’s in stirring up debate among the people who see it. Great movies do that while also telling a great story – Good Kill doesn’t get there.
The film stars Ethan Hawke as Major Thomas Egan. After being an actual pilot – flying combat missions for years – he is now stationed in Las Vegas, where every day he goes into a trailer with his team and flies a drone over Afghanistan. Sometimes, the only thing he has to do is surveillance – watching to see if a target is there. But more often than not, he is given a mission. His missions consist of him getting into position, and then firing a missile. The drones are so high up, no one of the ground has any hope of seeing them, and the missiles strike within a matter of seconds, obliterating everything in their path. He is the best at his job – an emotionless zombie, who knows what it really means to fly, and who carries out the orders of his commander, Jack Johns (Bruce Greenwood), without thought or questioning. At the end of the day, he drives home to his wife, Molly (January Jones) and their two kids. He’s just as much of an emotionless zombie there as well. It’s not that he doesn’t love his wife and kids, but that he is having trouble with his job and cannot deal with it. At least when he was flying in combat there was a separation – over there, and back home. Now, it’s one and the same. As his team gets tasked with conducting secret missions for the CIA – represented by the cold voice of Peter Coyote on a speakerphone – it gets worse. Now he’s bombing people in countries American isn’t even officially at war with. And often, he is told to wait after firing his missile – that way, when people run into help those blown up, he can blow them up to. When his co-pilot, Vera Suarez (Zoe Kravitz) points out this is exactly what terrorists do, she is ignored.
Hawke is an excellent actor – and he is very good in this role, or at least, he plays the role exactly the way it was meant to be played. He is closed off emotionally at all times, drinking constantly, although he rarely seems drunk. He conducts his missions precisely the way they want them to be conducted. The problem is at home, he is the exact same way. He doesn’t want to talk about his work to his wife and kids – bring home the violence and death he sees (and causes) everyday – but since he cannot think of anything else, that means he spends most of his time staring off into space. He is a drone himself.
That is undoubtedly the point of the movie – and it’s a point writer/director Andrew Niccol makes very well. Egan is an emotionless void on the surface who never seems to get angry. But as his wife tells one of her friends when she asks what happens when Tom gets angry, she replies “He gets even quieter” – it’s a scary thing. We know eventually he will explode – he almost has to in order for the movie to have a traditional structure – but for much of the movie we have no idea what’s going on inside his head. Again, that is the point of the movie, but it doesn’t make it all that dramatic – all that interesting to watch. It doesn’t help that aside from Egan, the rest of the cast is given one note roles. Jones as the wife who wants to be supportive, but is tired of his moods, and essentially raising the kids by herself. We know eventually she will say something along the lines of “You’re not here even when you are” – and, of course, she does. Greenwood is effective as the Commanding officer, who may not precisely like what they do, but does it anyway – being able to fully justify it to himself. Kravitz’s function seems to be much like Hawke’s function was in another Andrew Niccol movie – Lord of War, about an international arms dealer (Nicolas Cage – in one of his very best performances) - where Hawke showed up once in a while to make a dramatic speech about how evil Cage was, just in case the audience didn’t get the message. Kravitz is a talented young actress, but there is little anyone can do with a role like that (Hawke didn’t fare much better in Lord of War) – and her bizarre flirtation/attraction to Egan doesn’t make any logical sense at all. There are two other members of the team – but they are “true believers”, and the movie doesn’t do much with them at all.
The last act in the film doesn’t make much sense. For an hour or so, Good Kill shows us mission after mission of the same thing – they are given orders, and Hawke carries them out, and if women and children are killed, so be it. They have no idea what any of the men are “guilty” of – it’s above their pay grade, and they don’t get to ask. The one person they know is evil – a rapist who comes into a courtyard during Hawke’s surveillance efforts on a large compound, and rapes a housekeeper, they do nothing about. They are waiting for the owner to return so they can blow up the house – who cares about some local rapist? We know eventually that Egan has to snap – both at home and at work – because that is what happens in movies like this. He does, but in ways that feel completely false – an excuse to add false dramatics to a movie that didn’t have any dramatics for most of its runtime. It may have been far duller to just continue with Egan pulling off his missions like a mindless automaton, but it also would have made a lot more sense, and be truer to the spirit of the movie, and its message.
Niccol can be a fine writer/director at times. His Gattaca (1997), with Hawke, has become one of the most loved sci-fi films of the 1990s with good reason. And despite Hawke’s speechifying in Lord of War (2005), is an extremely entertaining, Scorsese-esque drama, that may have been a worthier successor to GoodFellas (a clear influence) has Niccol not given in and felt the need to explain to the audience just how evil his main character was (we already knew, without being told). It’s that – the tendency to underline the morality, or lack thereof, of his characters in specific, on-the-nose dialogue, that sinks Niccol’s features as often as not (like Simone or In Time). In Good Kill, he has very little other than his message. The film will stir debate to be sure – but as a movie, it’s more than a little dull.