Good Kill is the latest high tech parable from director Andrew Niccol, best known for sci-fi flicks GATTACA and In Time. Set in 2010, it deals with “actual events” in the lives of drone pilots flying assassination missions over Afghanistan. The movie is uneven, but it will give you a look at drone warfare that’s unlike anything you’ve seen.
Ethan Hawke plays Thomas Egan, an air force pilot who has returned from multiple tours of duty in Afghanistan only to find himself stationed at a drone base outside Las Vegas. He spends his weekends mowing the perfect lawn behind his suburban home, having barbecues with family and their friends — and then, on his work days, he flies over villages in Afghanistan, watching people, and killing them when he gets the order. All the planes at his base have been grounded, and the airfield covered in dozens of cargo containers full of what look like really sweet game rigs.
At first, it seems like Egan’s job is disturbing but still better than the alternative. He can kiss his children goodnight, and he doesn’t have to worry his plane will get shot out of the air.
But then he and his colleagues begin to get sketchy “signature assassination” orders from the CIA. A signature target is chosen based on information about who their compatriots are, not intel about things they have actually done. The idea is that somebody who hangs out with terrorists is probably also a terrorist. And in the world of Good Kill, these kinds of signature assassinations are happening all the time, at least for a few months in 2010. (There is conflicting evidence about how many such assassinations happened in real life, and when, but it is accurate to say that signature assassination exists.)
The more signature assassinations he carries out, the more Egan feels like shit about himself. His co-pilot, an airman named Vera Suarez (Zoe Kravitz), is also starting to get anxious about whether their missions are war crimes. What’s fascinating here isn’t so much the revelation that the CIA might be committing crimes, but rather than flying drones might cause as much psychological trauma as being in the middle of the action.
At one point, Egan says that the one constant in life is war. “There is always a war,” he says, taking one of about nine thousand swigs of gin he downs in the movie. We realise, as we watch Egan’s life fall apart, that drones don’t take soldiers out of war. In fact, they bring war right to their homes. Egan can never escape Afghanistan, nor the horror of killing innocent people (because inevitably innocents are caught in the blasts). Because the theatre of war is in a cargo container just up the freeway from his house.
I think this is actually the most important point in the film, and one that I have seen few stories about drones take into account. When we can make war from our backyards, we invite the war into our everyday lives in a way that is less deadly for American soldiers — but still just as emotionally devastating for them and their families. And that’s because even when killing happens at a distance, it’s still killing. Especially when the optics on those drones are so good that the pilots can see the children they have accidentally killed in a badly-timed strike.
Good Kill is at times hokey, and its messages so obvious that they can feel more like liberal propaganda than storytelling. And yet there are moments of realism and insight that make it worth thinking about. Because in this film, Niccol makes us realise that drones aren’t desensitising soldiers to war, or turning war into a far-away fantasy video game. Instead, drone warfare destroys the safety of home. Nothing will ever a homefront again, when war can be fought from anywhere, at any time.
TL;DR: This movie has one great idea, which is that drone strikes don’t make war more distant and remote, but instead brings war more deeply into our lives. Still, a lot of the film is cheesy and cliched, and the character arcs are pretty predictable.