Writer-director Andrew Niccol is best known for his contribution to the sci-fi genre: In Time, the classic Gattaca and the elegant script for Peter Weir’s The Truman Show to name a few.
Good Kill isn’t a science fiction film, but its premise could easily come from a dystopian novel – or a darkly prophetic story by Philip K Dick.
Ethan Hawke plays Major Thomas Egan, a veteran pilot who controls unmanned aerial vehicles (or drones, as they’re often dubbed by the media) as they circle the skies of the Middle East. At the orders of those higher up the command chain, these drones can strike targets from 10,000km in the air – so high that someone on the ground could look up and not even see the craft gliding above them.
Egan works in one of dozens of windowless, air-conditioned units parked on an air base outside Las Vegas, where old fighter jets are parked up, no longer used. Egan once flew them himself; now, he’s a bird of prey with his wings clipped, sitting in a chair and zapping enemies with his joystick from the comfort of an office chair. At the end of each shift, he clocks off, jumps in his black muscle car and drives home to his wife (January Jones) and two kids.
Approaching his subject matter like a journalist, Niccol offers up a stark depiction of a new form of technological warfare – one most audience members will perhaps only know from news bulletins. We’ve all seen footage of the drones now commonly used by the military: pale, sleek, and like Egan’s control centre, eerily windowless. Niccol tells the story of the people who have their hands on the joystick, peering down like gods on the Middle Eastern towns and cities below, and occasionally raining down their deadly bolts of lightning.
As the quietly embittered Colonel Jack Johns (Bruce Greenwood) observes, the job’s like playing a videogame, except the targets Egan and his fellow recruits are firing at aren’t a cloud of pixels, but human beings whose allegiances are seldom clear. Egan’s job strips the danger from his job as a pilot, and with it, a sense of pride. How can there be pride and honour in killing an enemy that can’t fight back, that he can see with his own eyes isn’t even an immediate threat? Gradually, and understandably, the detached killing of suspected members of the Taliban and al Qaida crawls under Egan’s skin, and his seemingly idyllic home life begins to unspool.
Ethan Hawke is outstanding as the middle-aged former pilot, who harbours a longing to climb back in the cockpit and fosters a growing horror at his new role as a drone operator. With his shades, precise haircut and blue jeans, Hawke perfectly inhabits his role, painting a portrait of an all-American archetype who, in Niccol’s story, is now surplus to requirements. Everyone still wears their flight suits, perhaps because of tradition, even though they could just as easily be wearing a shirt and tie like the astronauts in Gattaca.
Niccol captures the chilling detachment of Egan’s job: the Rear Window-like sense of voyeurism as he watches people milling around on the ground below, and the ruthless efficiency of acquiring a target, pulling the trigger, and waiting for the ten agonising seconds it takes for the missile to hit the ground. That we only see the destruction from Egan’s point of view makes these sequences all the more disturbing, as does Amir Mokri’s photography, which cuts dizzyingly from fuzzy in-flight shots of burned-out desert buildings and smoking bodies to the sharp azure skies of Las Vegas.
In terms of human drama, Good Kill swims in familiar water – domestic bust-ups, suspected adultery, booze in the bathroom, and so forth – but Hawke’s too smart an actor to not give his character an added edge, something extra we haven’t seen before. It really is a great performance. I’m not sure we really needed the (admittedly low-key) frisson of attraction between Hawke and Zoe Kravitz’s new recruit, Vera Suarez, but it’s only a minor distraction. Maybe Kravitz’s character serves to underline that the crisis Egan’s going through isn’t a sexual, midlife-crisis, but one of morality and honour.
Some characters in Good Kill argue that the use of UAVs makes perfect tactical sense: they’re a relatively cheap, reliable and low-risk means of spotting potential terrorist activity and eliminating it. But Niccol makes no secret of how drone warfare could be misused: he depicts an Orwellian perpetual war, where drone strikes simply foster more anger and resentment towards America, and in turn more potential terrorist threats. The answer? “We can kill them faster than they can make them,” one character off-handedly says.
Niccol touched on an unusual story of conflict in Lord Of War, and Good Kill could be seen as a low-key but equally unsettling companion to that film. But as mentioned above, it’s also of a piece with his science fiction films – the only difference is that what he depicts here doesn’t take place in the far-flung future, but in the recent past.
Good Kill is highly effective as a drama, with a detailed and thoughtful performance from Hawke as a faded pilot-turned office chair executioner. It’s also a gripping look at a relatively new technology, and how it’s quietly changing the face of war.
Good Kill is out now in UK cinemas.
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