Good Kill, drama, rated R, Center for Contemporary Arts, 3.5 chiles
One of the fresh opportunities for ethical malaise provided by our modern world comes with our government’s use of drones to kill people half a world away. Here’s how it works: A team of military technicians sits at a console in a bunker in the desert outside Las Vegas. On a video monitor, an image of a target — perhaps a building, perhaps a truck moving across a landscape, perhaps a gathered knot of men in Pashtun clothing — appears. The targets are beamed from a landscape that’s not unlike the one outside the metal door of the Nevada bunker, on which hangs a sign that reads, “You Are Now Leaving the U.S.A.”
Once an appropriate enemy target has been identified and confirmed, the monitor image zooms in and locks, the triggerman at the console pushes a button, there’s a brief countdown as the missile flies, and then — where the target was — there is an explosion, and the screen fills with clouds of billowing smoke. When the smoke clears, we see dead bodies strewn amid the burning rubble. “Good kill,” someone in the bunker remarks approvingly. Then other figures hurry into the picture, distant tiny human beings rushing to help the wounded or claim the dead. And then, sometimes, we repeat the sequence for the new arrivals. This chilling movie from writer-director Andrew Niccol (Gattaca, Lord of
War) puts this impersonal weapon into human terms. Ethan Hawke plays Maj. Tom Egan, a fighter pilot veteran of six tours of combat duty who has now been assigned to pilot a drone. His commander, Lt. Col. Jack Johns (Bruce Greenwood), barks the orders and listens with weary sympathy to Tom’s pleas for reassignment back into a real fighter plane (“I miss the fear,” Egan says). Rounding out the crew in the bunker are a couple of technicians played by Jake Abel and Dylan Kenin and a female co-pilot, Airman Vera Suarez (Zoë Kravitz).
When Egan is not sitting at the gamelike console meting out death, he is numbing himself with vodka or at home barbecuing on the bright green artificial lawn of his prefab desert house and fending off the attempts of his wife ( January Jones) to rekindle their relationship.
Things would seem to be bad enough. But into this equation slithers a serpent, in the form of a new authority over the operation. The team will now be receiving its orders from the CIA. Targets will be assigned direct from Langley, now on the basis of “suspicious patterns of activity,” not specific terrorist sightings. The orders are issued via the silky voice of Peter Coyote, and they are not to be questioned, and they are not to be traceable back to the CIA.
Niccol is interested in the devastating effects of the remote killings on the Afghans, but more so on our people, the ones dealing out the death. The technicians have no problem with the system. Col. Johns doesn’t like it (“It used to be, you’d go to war with a country, you’d actually go to the country”), but he doesn’t question his orders. Suarez grows more and more traumatized. Egan grows more and more drunk.
Niccol’s style here is minimal, with no bells and whistles to distract from the stark topic. Hawke and Greenwood are excellent. The story only veers a little off track to provide a bit of melodrama for an ending.
Remote killing does violence to our concept of fair play, but it accomplishes its objectives without putting American lives at risk — at least in the short run. All’s fair in war, until a country finds itself on the losing side of history. “It’s not a just war,” Johns sighs. “It’s just war.”
— Jonathan Richards
At the helm: Ethan Hawke