I won’t argue that Andrew Niccol’s Good Kill isn’t as important as it thinks it is. Perhaps Niccol tried too hard to make a statement — maybe as an attempt to expiate his sins for making that abomination called The Host (2013). The film leans heavily on the didactic side, and it never cracks a smile — as if we might otherwise forget that this is important. In fairness, Niccol is generally pretty humorless — 2002’s S1m0ne to one side, and even it is pretty somber taken altogether — and tends to slide into preachiness. None of this, however, is to say that Good Kill isn’t a good, sometimes very powerful movie — merely that its reach exceeds its grasp. The very fact that someone has tackled the topic of drone warfare is noteworthy in itself.
Ethan Hawke stars as Major Thomas Egan, a former fighter pilot now spending his days sitting in a trailer and killing the enemy (and a few hapless passersby) from the safety of Las Vegas — and trying to come to grips with the distancing effect of this kind of utterly impersonal warfare. The film is actually a little disingenuous here — or maybe Egan is — since flying an F-16 isn’t on the same one-on-one level of a World War I dogfight. For that matter, the collateral damage and the distinct possibility of working from faulty information is functionally the same from a high-tech cockpit or a small steel room, except that the personal risk has been removed from the latter scenario — at least on the physical level. The psychological level is another matter. While I have trouble buying Egan’s nostalgia for actual combat, I can buy into the escalating guilt of dealing death from a distance where human beings are reduced to the level of a video game. (Stephen Gaghan’s Syriana first broached this topic in 2005.) That the operative difference may be minimal doesn’t change the psychological impact.
The film’s characters break down into types. Egan is the one beginning to question it all. His commander, Lt. Colonel Jack Johns (Bruce Greenwood), is determined to justify something to others he may not be able to justify to himself. Egan’s immediate team includes something of a bleeding-heart liberal (Zoë Kravitz), whose presence is a little hard to understand, and a gung-ho hawk (Jake Abel), who imbues the term armchair warrior with new meaning. Good Kill is not exactly subtle. It doesn’t get any more so when the situation worsens with the CIA (referred to at one point as Christians In Action) taking over giving the orders via phone under the anonymous name of “Langley” (voiced by Peter Coyote). With this change, the information goes from questionable to transparently spurious — not to mention the ethics worsening. All that may be a little — sometimes a lot — too easy. The same can be said of the business of the team having to powerlessly and repeatedly watch the continued raping of a woman by a man they’ve been told is not their target. These things, however, aren’t without their power. Egan’s marital troubles and slide into alcoholism, on the other hand, are shaky and clichéd from the onset, while the upshot of them is so glib as to provoke — at best — a groan. (If you’re less charitable, it may warrant a snicker.)
The truth is that, for all his faults as a writer, it’s Niccol’s direction that makes Good Kill work more than it doesn’t. The Las Vegas backdrop itself — surely the most absurd and unreal place imaginable — lends a dislocation from reality. The early cut from the monitors at the base to a video game at home may seem facile, but it makes its point — especially since Niccol is painting a picture of a world ever more removed from human interaction by technology providing the illusion of it. But perhaps the most compelling images in the film come from Niccol increasingly viewing the world Egan inhabits from a kind of drone’s-eye-view. It becomes more difficult to tell the difference between Afghanistan on a military monitor and the Las Vegas suburbs and schools. And that is a chilling realization that more than balances the film’s clunkiness. Rated R for violent content including a rape, language and some sexuality.