Good Kill (dir. Andrew Niccol)

Posted: May 7, 2015 in Uncategorized

Andrew Niccol does two types of movies really well. The first type, and the one he’s more known for, is idea-driven science fiction.  “Gattaca” is the main example of this, and Niccol’s most successful film, but he also made the underrated “In Time”.  The other type is taking a policy issue and creating a personal drama around it.  “Lord of War”, one of Nic Cage’s better films of the last two decades, dealt with arms dealers and was a meditation on the role guns play in both the United States and the world at large.  This second type of film is where “Good Kill”, Niccol’s latest film, firmly resides.  This type, the topic is drone warfare, and the resulting film plays like a liberal version of “American Sniper” with a few sprinkles of “The Hurt Locker” and “Jarhead”, but ends up being a bit too on-the-nose to be effect as anything more than  an op-ed piece.

The film stars Niccol regular Ethan Hawke as Major Thomas Egan, a former fighter pilot who was cajoled out of flying actual planes and is now on his third tour as a drone pilot.  He sits in what he refers to as “an air condition cubicle” with at least three other soldiers and pilots drones flying over Afghanistan while, later, and he can go home to his house and his family just outside of Las Vegas after his shift is over.  The drone missions range from surveillance, to offering overhead protection for sleeping soldiers in the field, to assassinating proven members of terrorist organizations.  When we first meet Egan, he’s a bit cold to his family at home and drinks perhaps a tad too much vodka, and much like the sniper who is never allowed to take a shot in “Jarhead”, is upset that he was trained to be an actual pilot but is stuck navigating a joystick in a bunker thousands of miles away from the actual warzone.  The film, for the most part, is okay with drone missions in this early part of the film, which takes place in 2010, when the military was actually running their own missions and there was a certain burden of proof before blowing people up.

As the film goes on, oversight of the drone program moves to the CIA, which has a much looser standard for taking out targets. Killings can now take place if certain repeated behaviors SUGGEST impropriety, and the CIA in the film is fairly unconcerned with collateral damage, even ordering to double-tap certain bombed sites when people start to pour over the initial wreckage caused by a drone strike.

The film is a hodgepodge of a bunch of liberal talking points. The film is very concerned with the fact that drone strikes have a large impact radius which will often kill or wound people who are not the intended target, and that those people will inevitable have a chip on their shoulder and become terrorists even if they were not radicalized before.  The film argues that the advent of drone warfare, despite the collateral damage issue and the loose standards by which we blow people up, is because it is cheaper and easier to kill people with robots from the sky than to capture and imprison terrorist suspects (and torture them), since any attempt to capture people on the ground could result in American troops being captured or killed in the process.  We also get a look at the hypocrisy of an American government that considers any gun-carrying Afghani a terrorist when most Afghanis have guns regardless of whether or not they are affiliated with terrorism, and America is gung-ho about its right to bear arms.  We get a potshot, courtesy of a character played by Zoe Kravitz, at President Obama getting a Nobel Peace prize while overseeing a drone war.  There’s criticism of drone missions being staged over Yemen, a country the United States is ostensibly not at war with.  If the film offers any counter argument, it’s usually characters that mimic Chris Kyle from “American Sniper”, referring to Muslims as “savages”, claiming American can kill them faster than they can breed, and a paranoid fear of radical Muslims wanting to take over America and institute Sharia Law.  Egan’s commanding officer, played well by Bruce Greenwood, argues that killing is a vicious cycle, and even if we (America) stopped killing them, THEY (terrorists) wouldn’t stop killing us.  A rather dejected and amoral argument, but I suppose that’s about as good as the jingoistic crowd has.

The film is not 100% anti-drone, as it seems to be okay with surveillance and protection missions, and aside from an early drone strike where two kids are accidentally killed as collateral damage, the early pre-CIA strikes are all portrayed positively.  Later in the film, Egan uses a drone to take revenge on a man they see repeatedly rape a female, but the man is never on any kill list from the military or the CIA in the film, even when civilians sometimes are.  “Good Kill” is perhaps slightly less anti-drone than Jeremy Scahill’s anti-drone documentary “Dirty Wars”, but only slightly.  Greenwood’s character does briefly gripe that where once wars from the sky were waged by trained pilots but will soon be by kids trained directly on Xbox’s, but drones in and of themselves are not attacked as much as the methods and rules of engagement that are utilized when deploying drone attacks.

The political content is often delivered directly in surface level, talking heads dialogue.  That’s a bit weak.  The main weakness of the film, however, is its insistence in having a family story run concurrently with the drone and political stuff.  Egan and his wife’s (January Jones) marriage is cold and loveless, and we’re told at one point abusive.  Egan’s issue seems to be that he has a hard time compartmentalizing going to work and killing people during the day, and coming home to his family at night.  At one point, he gripes that when he physically WENT AWAY to war, war was war and home was home, but that it’s harder to keep the two separate when you experience both in the same day, every day.  Honestly, the relationship stuff is about as uncompelling as the relationship stuff in “American Sniper”, though “Good Kill” is otherwise better in every way from that reprehensible piece of shit.  Still, Egan has two kids, and we never see one of them, except maybe in a brief glimpse in one scene.  I’m surprised they didn’t just cut the son out completely.  Also, while the moral crises of killing A LOT of innocent people during the CIA portion is compelling, Egan’s character has issues with the drone stuff earlier, and that’s all for selfish and not very sympathetic reasons (he just wants to fly a real damn plane), which makes his decent into alcoholism not very saddening.  While “Sniper” failed in its portrayal of PTSD because it was cynically wedged in to avoid criticism, and then portrayed unrealistically, “Good Kill” fails with a different type of PTSD, and alcoholism, because it starts off for stupid reasons and is only then exacerbated by moral crises.

I appreciate the effort by Niccol, and some of the drone scenes are suitably tense.  Having the CIA solely represented by a voice on speaker phone, showing even further the detachment of war than piloting robots, was a nice touch.  But we also have a potential affair and romance with Kravitz’s character thrown in the mix and, well, the film end sup with a lack of focus and is just not very successful.  I have not seen the “The Host”, but I have seen Niccol’s previously most disappointing film, “Sim0ne”, and “Good Kill” is only slightly better than that.

We’ve gotten a lot of films in the past few years about drones, but most have been about drone warfare metaphorically, like the “RoboCop” remake or “Star Trek Into Darkness”. Literal films are pretty much limited to “Dirty Wars” and maybe the Wikileaks drama “The Fifth Estate”.  “Good Kill” is a valiant effort for being on the field first with a dramatic film about what it may be like to wage a war outside of a war zone, and some of the moral hardships involved, but it’s too on-the-nose, direct, and surface to let the drama carry the ideas, and the family stuff is not executed well at all. C+

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