CINEMA

‘Good kill’: Ethan Hawke battles Taliban from an armchair in Nevada

Andrew Niccol's “Good Kill”, starring Ethan Hawke as a tormented drone pilot, offers a timely but uneven take on a chilling form of warfare.

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Major Tom Egan (Ethan Hawke) is a US Air Force pilot with a plaintive streak and a penchant for booze. “I blew up six Taliban in Pakistan today and now I'm going home to barbecue,” he wryly tells a liquor vendor early on in the film. Except he's nowhere near Pakistan. Egan lives and works outside Las Vegas, Nevada, 7,000 miles away from his targets. His cockpit is a metal container parked in a US air base. A sign on the door reads “You're leaving the USA”.

A seasoned pilot with several tours behind him, Egan is itching to get back on a plane. Instead, he's reduced to picking off pixelated enemy targets on his computer screen with a joystick, as in a video game. He pulls the trigger and within a few seconds the screen goes splash – another “good kill”. But the targets are very real people, and sometimes children get in the way.

It gets worse when he starts taking direct orders from the CIA, which has embraced the use of drones in its war on terror. The “military” nature of the targets becomes less clear. The CIA – a disembodied voice giving orders through loudspeaker – claims they're an “imminent threat” to the US, based on their “pattern of behaviour”. But for all we (and Egan) know, they could be random guys picked out by a satellite. Invariably, they are surrounded by women and children. "Collateral damage," says the voice, feigning to be moved and blaming the terrorists for using civilians to shield them.

Morose Maverick

The subject of drones, with their impersonal, all-encompassing reach, gives the film an Orwellian tinge reminiscent of Niccol's previous works, including his script for “The Truman Show” (1998) and his directorial hit “Gattacca” (1997), also starring Hawke. At 44, Hawke still has the boyish looks of his early films, albeit with cropped hair and the odd wrinkle, like a tired, despondent Maverick from “Top Gun”. He cuts a convincingly tortured character, though the contorted look of pain on his face can be a little tiresome.

Egan's psychological distress takes a toll on his marriage to Molly, played by January Jones.
Egan's psychological distress takes a toll on his marriage to Molly, played by January Jones.

Egan is a decent guy, but dour, uncommunicative and sometimes violent. He is on the screen throughout the film and yet we hardly hear from him. Most of the time, he stares blankly at the sky or booms down desert roads in a black muscle car strikingly similar to the one he drove in Richard Linklater's “Boyhood”. One minute he's in Pakistan, the next he's driving past Vegas's Eiffel Tower and Taj Mahal.

Regrettably, the film is let down by Hollywood's seemingly incurable obsession with tormented, intoxicated men ignoring their gorgeous blond wives' desperate attempts to help them. Egan's fraught relationship with his wife Molly (played by January Jones in a thankless role) is surely crucial to the film, but the domestic scenes are exhausting and teeming with trite ideas. It is not the only flaw in a film that feels at times overscripted and unnatural, not least in the overused soundbites recited at the army base. Still, there is plenty to draw from.

From gamers to killers

“Good kill” captures the crude irony of a form of warfare that allows soldiers to shred people to bits from a safe distance while returning to their dull suburban lives every evening. “We're living the dream,” a fellow “pilot” tries to persuade Egan. “We can see our kids, get laid, and not worry about being cheated on.” While Egan is a veteran of the Iraq war, the Air Force's new recruits are “just a bunch of gamers”, suggesting a disturbingly seamless transition from combat video games to real killing.

From an American perspective, there is a mathematical logic to drone strikes as opposed to full-blown military occupation. They are cheaper, more efficient, less destructive. Crucially, they stop the body bags flying back to the US. “Our country's best-spent $68,000!” one of Egan's colleagues cheers after a successful strike.

Drones are at the forefront of Washington's seemingly endless war on terror. As such, they are backed up by the same flawed moral arguments used by US officials ever since 9/11. Sure it hurts to kill kids, says Egan's captain after a case of “collateral damage”, but there was no way of knowing they were there; whereas the terrorists, “they could see the children as they walked up to the cockpit” before crashing the planes into the Twin Towers. Drones are the present and future of warfare. They will be flown to “whatever god-forsaken land we’re at war with”. Except the US is not at war with Pakistan, Yemen or many of Egan’s other targets.

Anti-war?

The critique of US tactics is left largely to Egan's partner at work, Vera Suarez (Zoë Kravitz), who brings a dose of clichéd female humanity into the macho world of war. Suarez says indiscriminate killings by drone strikes have turned the US into the “biggest recruitment agency for terrorists”. “Do we deserve a Nobel peace prize now?” she sneers after the latest civilian deaths, in a jab at President Barack Obama, whose administration has vastly expanded the use of drones. Egan is far less vocal, although being the hero (and the man) he is inevitably the one to rebel.

Even as his personal crisis deepens, Egan becomes increasingly involved in the fate of an Afghan civilian who is routinely tormented by a male aggressor – the film's only recognisable villain but not a US target. Though distracting and needlessly melodramatic, the sub-plot stresses the deeply disturbing nature of a god-like technology that monitors our every step and dispenses “justice” from on high.

Throughout the film, there is an ambivalence in Egan's character that questions what the film is really about. He is genuinely guilt-racked when he pulls the trigger on children. But is it really their death that torments him or the fact that he didn't kill them from a plane – as an honourable pilot would have?

“Every day I feel like a coward,” he says in a rare moment of confession. But his is no critique of war. It is the complaint of a soldier in a position of comfort who wants to be on the frontline, just like Eastwood's “American Sniper” insists on quitting the rooftop to join Marines on the ground. Hollywood loves that kind of character, though Niccol is wise enough not to glorify his protagonist.

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