“Good Kill” is part of the recent subgenre of drone warfare movies. Get used to them because if movie makers are going to realistically portray warfare the way it actually is today, they will have to include drones. If the movie concentrates on the use of drones in combat against terrorism, like “Good Kill”, it may focus on the disconnection between the “pilot” and the battlefield. “Good Kill” was directed by Andrew Nicol (“Lord of War”). He also wrote and produced. I hope he did not put much of his own money into it because the box office was miniscule.
For the clueless, the movie informs the audience that since the War on Terrorism began on 9/11, there has been increasing use of unmanned aerial vehicles (drones). The movie is set in 2010 and is based on actual events. “Actual events” probably refers to the fact that there are actually drone warriors. Maj. Thomas Egan (Ethan Hawke) used to be an F-16 fighter jock who served six tours in the Middle East. His commanding officer had convinced him that temporary transfer to the drone program would be a good career move. Three tours in, he is wondering if he will ever get back in a cockpit again.
Egan works with a team in a metal box on an air force base near Las Vegas. Thousands of miles away, their Predator drone orbits terrorist suspects. They refer to it as the “national bird of Afghanistan” and joke about being in the “chair force”. In a typical mission, they target a group of Taliban and some civilians are killed. Or as it is called in the business, there is some “collateral damage”. From their safe command bunker, the mission is deemed a “good kill” and damage assessment is clinically analyzed. With his shift over, Egan returns to his home in suburbia. He’s a fighter pilot without a plane so you can imagine this does not make him the easiest spouse to live with. Plus, he is not gung-ho about the use of Predators to kill bad guys with the occasional dead innocents. He may work in a compartment, but he can’t compartmentalize. His wife Molly (January Jones) wants to understand what he is going through, but being an alpha male, he does not want to talk about his job.
Egan’s boss is Lt. Col. Jack Johns (Bruce Greenwood). His philosophy is made clear in a speech given to some new recruits. Standing in front of a flag like Patton, he does not channel “Old Blood and Guts”. “This ain’t Play Station”. We are killing people. It’s “flesh and blood”, not pixels. Do your job, but remember what is taking place. The speech does not have the tone of Patton’s, but I have to believe Patton would not have been thrilled with killing an enemy from a distance. Next time you watch “Patton”, try to imagine him involved in the War on Terrorism.
Egan gets a new “co-pilot” in Airman First Class Vera Suarez (Zoe Kravitz). Her introduction to drone warfare is an ongoing surveillance of a Taliban safe house. The team witnesses the sexual abuse of a female by a “bad guy”, just not their “bad guy”. It’s this kind of Peeping Tom activity that encourages Egan to drink. Suarez is a candidate for that arc because she wonders if some of their “good kills” are war crimes. The other two members of the team are down with the program. One, we’re killing them before they kill us. Two, they wouldn’t care about civilian deaths. Three, it’s our culture versus theirs. Lastly, we’re winning. Both sides have legit arguments.
The greyness gets greyer when the team is promoted to working with the CIA. The CIA has more lenient Rules of Engagement. They allow “signature strikes” that are based on patterns of behavior. Langley also is not overly concerned with civilian deaths. If there are a few terrorists at a funeral, the CIA is willing to accept the collateral damage. The disembodied voice from Langley is also prone to order follow up missiles to take out rescuers coming to the scene. Egan/Suarez are not cool with this and neither is Johns, but he feels it’s part of the job.
“Good Kill” attempts to put you into the drone trailer with the personnel who are fighting this war for us. It covers the process as well as the impact this new type of warfare has on the warriors. It also presents the arguments for and against this response to terrorism. This is relatively new territory for a war movie, but the plot uses classic aerial warfare tropes. Egan’s character is the fighter pilot who has trouble adjusting to civilian life or in this case, flying without a plane. He replaces the adrenaline with alcohol. His disillusionment causes dysfunction in his family life. His wife is the typical cinematic warrior spouse. She wants to stay together, but he is making it difficult. As usual, she does not understand why he would want to go back in harm’s way. The movie may be clicheish, but it is interesting to see the cliches placed in a war movie set in a current war.
The cast is playing mostly stock characters, but they are outstanding. Hawke does morose well. Egan is one depressing dude. Kravitz is solid as the green, naïve Suarez. The one character who is not a stereotype is Johns. Normally in a movie like this, the commander would be a tool. A tool of the strategists. Johns acts as a balance between the pro and con contingents. He is a good leader who has adjusted to the new way of warfare, but he doesn’t have to like it. He is empathetic toward his fellow old school warrior Egan. The villain is the CIA. The movie is not so much anti-drone as it is anti-drone operated by the CIA.
To go along with the theme of the stressed warrior, the movie makes a strong effort to contrast the opposing cultures. And contrasting civilian life with military life. Egan launches a Hellfire missile which kills an Afghani and then leaves his trailer and drives home to his home in the suburbs. Director Nicol uses overhead shots (from a drone?) of the suburb and his children’s school to make the point. A trip to nearby Las Vegas contrasts to the Middle Eastern towns they surveille. Although there is a base outside Vegas (Creech Air Force Base) where the drone program is prominent, the location lends itself to contrasting America’s satanic culture as exemplified by Vegas with the Middle Eastern culture of our adversaries. The movie is not heavy-handed in its approach to these themes. Unlike most movies of this type, the Predator jockeys are not stalking some terrorist Bin Laden.
The movie may be a good tutorial on drone warfare, its rules of engagement, and skirting of war crimes, but it is also entertaining in its drama. There are several missions that are suspenseful and thought-provoking. There is variety in these missions. One involves Egan watching over an American Special Forces squad so they can get some sleep behind enemy lines. Drone warfare may be antiseptic, but the men and women implementing it are still American soldiers or airmen. “Good Kill” will put you in their shoes. The fighting they are doing for you takes its toll psychically as well as physically. You can sleep well, but they find it hard.
“Good Kill” is a real overlooked gem. I have no idea why it bombed at the box office. I guess I could theorize that the public does not want to hear about what goes on in those trailers. For a nation obsessed with first person shooters, drone warfare is the reality. We are raising gamers who will do the fighting for us, but we don’t want to see the results.