Ethan Hawke plays a morally conflicted drone pilot in this unflinching look at the cost of drone warfare.
America’s drone war is no secret. The media has long been privy to the Air Force’s dirty laundry, and lately movies and TV have caught on as well. What has stayed hazy though are the details, the rules of engagement, the lives of the pilots involved, the kill counts, and who exactly is running the show. Good Kill dares to zoom in on the dark life of a drone pilot and the new, “retaliate first” ethics of war.
Ethan Hawke dons a pair of aviator sunglasses and a flight suit to play Major Tommy Egan, a six tour veteran who has been relegated to flying drone missions from an air-conditioned box outside of Las Vegas. From the start Tommy rallies against being caged on the ground. Being a pilot was his life. It made him happy, and despite the risk, it kept his marriage stable, and him sane. But flying drones has its perks. After landing his UAV Tommy gets to go home to his wife and kids. He gets to barbecue in his Nevada backyard.
Everything changes though when Tommy’s unit, complete with idealist rookie Suarez (Zoe Kravitz), is handpicked to fly special drone missions for the CIA. The ever-present risk of collateral damage is magnified tenfold by the agencies strike first policy, and it isn’t long before Tommy is sinking into the bottle and losing sleep over pulling the trigger. As the operations get more and more ethically blurry, Tommy and Suarez begin to push back against the invisible hand that guides them.
Good Kill, for most of its run time, is as morally pragmatic as a film like this—with such an obvious message—needs to be. The questioning of the government’s drone program is worn openly; characters repeatedly find themselves in debates about the killing of civilians and the creation of extremists. These debates seem to do little for the plot or character, except to show who stands where—as though the soldiers’ banter during their missions wasn’t enough. But Good Kill stays on target. First and foremost it is a film about a man, Tommy, struggling with alcoholism, with keeping his family together, and with the ambiguous necessity of killing innocent people to save American lives.
As Tommy, Hawke is at his brooding best. He’s a man running out of fight, struggling to breathe under the weight on his conscience. It’s a performance that could have been one note, but Hawke manages to make Tommy a fully rounded character (unlike his pure-gruff barkeeper in last year’s Predestination). For all his silence Tommy is still simmering beneath the surface, nursing his dreams of taking flight once again, and still holding onto a happiness he once had.
Written and directed by regular Ethan Hawke collaborator Andrew Niccol (Gattaca and Lord of War when he’s good, In Time and The Host when he’s not), Good Kill is a well crafted drama that functions best when the pilots are hunched before their dazzling array of monitors. The script mines true tension from Tommy, Suarez, and their Colonel (a fine Bruce Greenwood) as they question the orders voiced by an absent Langley, knowing all the while that they will ultimately comply. At home though, as Tommy and his wife Molly (January Jones) try to recapture the spark of their early marriage, and Suarez manages her own romantic feelings, the film falters and the tension crumbles, at least until Tommy can once again take the pilot’s chair. One constant is that the film is richly lensed by Amir Mokri. Everything is sun-baked; the deserts of the war-torn Middle East and dusty Nevada are shot to mirror each other ominously, the view from above suddenly terrifying.
Good Kill is at its best when it is unflinching; while Tommy pushes back against “taking pot shots” at people from the sky, it becomes more and more clear that there isn’t another solution on the table. The war on terror has become a vicious cycle with no end in sight. The only question is who will fight that war. Despite being set five years ago, Good Kill is an urgent film that doesn’t look to serve up answers, but instead to incite debate.