Director: Andrew Niccol
Cast: Ethan Hawke, January Jones, Zoë Kravitz, Bruce Greenwood, Jake Abel, Peter Coyote, Alma Sisneros, Alma Sisneros
Runtime: 1 hr 42 mins
Rating: NC-16 (Coarse Language and Sexual Scenes)
Released By: Cathay-Keris Films
Official Website: http://www.ifcfilms.com/films/good-kill
Opening Day: 28 May 2015
Synopsis: In the shadowy world of drone warfare, combat unfolds like a video game-only with real lives at stake. After six tours of duty, Air Force pilot Tom Egan (Ethan Hawke) yearns to get back into the cockpit of a real plane, but he now fights the Taliban from an air-conditioned box in the Las Vegas desert. When he and his crew start taking orders directly from the CIA, and the stakes are raised, Egan's nerves-and his relationship with his wife (Mad Men's January Jones)-begin to unravel. Revealing the psychological toll drone pilots endure as they are forced to witness the aftermath of their fight against insurgents, Andrew Niccol (Gattaca, Lord of War) directs this riveting insider's view of 21st-century warfare, in which operatives target enemies from half a world away.
Joining the ranks of Kathryn Bigelow and Clint Eastwood is Andrew Niccol, whose latest film based on the War on Terror ranks as one of the more important ones you should see. Unlike the former’s ‘Zero Dark Thirty’ or ‘The Hurt Locker’, Niccol takes aim (pardon the pun) at a very specific topic that has been the subject of much controversy especially in recent years, that of drone warfare. For the uninitiated, that refers to the use of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) commandeered remotely by pilots thousands of miles away in air-conditioned bunkers to take down hostiles right on their very own soil, which basically turns modern warfare into the equivalent of a video game and reduces human casualties to pixels on a screen.
Major Thomas Egan (Ethan Hawke) is one such pilot, who after six tours of flying F-16s, is now assigned to 12-hour shifts flying a UAV over Afghanistan from a military base just outside of Las Vegas under the command of Lieutenant Colonel Jack Johns (Bruce Greenwood). As the opening credits roll, we see what Thomas does through his viewfinder, just before he is given the order to reduce it all to dust and rubble. It’s a good kill all right, and indeed there is no doubt Thomas is excellent at what he does. And yet, the very fact that he has just asked Colonel Johns to be deployed for another tour of duty despite having family (January Jones is Thomas’ wife, Molly) and an imminent promotion suggests that there must be something alienating, or even unsettling, about his latest assignment.
Accelerating his gradual unravelling is the entry of the CIA, who are vested with the resources of the Air Force at their disposal to act on the intelligence they have. Protocol states that their team is only supposed to obey and execute but not to question the soundness of the CIA’s orders. Yet it isn’t just his rookie co-pilot Suarez (Zoe Kravitz) who is distressed by the nature of their CIA-sanctioned missions, so too is Thomas’ own commanding officer himself. Case in point? The CIA orders the bombing of a funeral for the victims of an earlier strike which they had earlier gave “permission to prosecute”; likewise for the rescue workers who flock to the scene of an earlier explosion.
It’s not hard to sieve out the shaky moral and strategic grounds of his missions – non-combatants killed in the name of collateral damage, assessments based not just on known identities but also unknowns with a discernible “pattern of behaviour”, and the perpetuation of a vicious cycle of hate and killings. Niccol trusts his audience to make their own judgments about the use of drone warfare – aside from the fact that it minimises the loss of American lives in combat – as well as the more controversial topic of the CIA’s involvement in military missions. Contrary to what one may expect, Niccol doesn’t condemn the mechanics of the warfare he portrays; as Colonel Johns points out, he would be equally hard-pressed to explain to a grieving mother why he had not acted when he could to prevent the death of her son in combat.
There are no easy answers to the dilemmas Niccol poses; on the other hand, what is unequivocally portrayed here is the mental and emotional costs of remote-control warfare on the people who are called to play it. Yes, like ‘Sniper’, this is a character study of the desensitising toll that war exerts on one of its subjects – and in this regard, Ethan Hawke gives a fantastically nuanced performance as the tortured soul. His Thomas Egan is a man of few words, who in fact goes quieter as he gets angrier, but even so, there is no doubting the inner turmoil that he is hiding beneath that calm veneer. How that affects his own sense of self as well as his marriage is intimately played out over the course of the film, and Hawke earns our strong sympathy with a genuinely affecting turn.
Niccol has surrounded Hawke with equally strong supporting performers, especially the ever-reliable Greenwood, who projects both authority and empathy as his superior who is fully aware of the thin line that they skate between the rules of engagement and cold-blooded assassination. And as both the writer and director of this riveting thriller, Niccol deserves praise for what is surely one of his best works to date. From ‘Gattaca’ to ‘S1mone’ to even the critically derided ‘In Time’ and ‘The Host’, Niccol has had a consistent interest in the impact that technology has on our humanity, and he explores that even more satisfyingly here than in any of his previous science-fiction works.
Though set half a decade ago, ‘Good Kill’ is an extremely timely film, one that meditates not just on the moral ambiguities of modern warfare but also the psychological costs of killing by remote control on the individuals who are tasked to do it. Unlike most other war movies, it doesn’t have a single scene of combat, but there is plenty of tension in the cramped, almost claustrophobic, trailer inside which Thomas and his fellow teammates receive and carry out their missions. Oh yes, it is riveting all right, that keeps your pulse racing while it tugs persuasively at your conscience.
(Ethan Hawke’s nuanced and sensitive turn anchors a riveting exploration of the morally ambiguous and psychologically damaging effects of remote-control warfare)
Review by Gabriel Chong